Canadian democracy is a large tent

By Hussein Hamdani

Thirty years ago this week the people of Quebec voted by a wide margin of 60% to 40% to reject sovereignty association with Canada. That was great news for Quebec and for Canada. We are stronger when united. In 1995, Quebecers had another referendum and it came down to the wire; 50.6% voted to stay in Canada, and 49.4% voted to separate. That night, a defeated Jacques Parizeau told his supporters that the separatists lost because of “money and ethnic votes”. The Francophone found their scapegoat: the ethnics. His bigotry was immediately condemned, and he resigned the next day.

It’s clear that Quebecers continue to have a real difficulty dealing with ethnic minorities. Today, their xenophobia appears targeted against Muslim women who wear the niqab – the full face covering.

In March, the Charest government introduced Bill 94 to require that the face must be visible during a person’s interaction with the government’s employees, including government departments, agencies, school boards, health and social services and day care. Requests for accommodation should be denied (whether or not the request is reasonable). Even if a veiled woman agrees to unveil in front of another woman, this is not sufficient, she must be willing to unveil herself in front of men, otherwise, she should be denied government service.

In Quebec, less then two dozen women wear the niqab – of whom only 10 turned up last year at the Montreal office of the provincial health board out of 118,000 visitors. Clearly, this is not an overwhelming wave. Nonetheless, this bill bans niqabis from working for, or even receiving services from, government and the broader public sector. These taxpayers may be denied all schooling, including French language instruction, and all non-emergency health care, including regular check ups. An excellent paper on the deficiencies of the bill can be found at the Tessellate Institute site  

Quebec is totally out of step with the rest of Canada, but especially Ontario. The difference revolves around the role of government in the lives of the people. French Canada believes that the state has a right to insist on a measure of shared values. It will make “reasonable accommodations” with minority rights, but assumes that the (big brother) government has the right to determine what qualifies as “reasonable.” Ontario and English Canada believes that the individual has rights which the state can never alienate. The government must recognize the rights of citizenry.

Most of us support English Canada’s position. We do not like the idea of the government telling people what they can and not wear, what they can believe and what they cannot believe. I do not encourage Muslim women to wear the niqab – it’s hard to converse with someone who wears one, and it cannot be conclusively justified by the faith. However, I think criminalizing women who wear it, or shunning them from receiving public services like health care is pejorative and discriminatory.

Canadians are enriched with Quebec as part of the dominion. But Francophone Quebecers need to understand that they too are enriched by the presence of people with diverse cultures, religions, clothes and food. Cities like Hamilton and Toronto excel where other cities around the world have failed: in the ability of bringing a wide variety of people together to live peacefully and respectfully. Quebec could learn a thing or two about living in an inclusive society from their Ontario neighbours.

Canadian democracy is a large tent with lots of room for all kinds of people, even a dozen or two veiled women. This bill is anti-democratic and xenophobic. It only harms unnecessarily.

*Freelance columnist Hussein Hamdani lives in Burlington, and works as a lawyer in Hamilton.