Possibility of Quebec’s Charter of Values causes soul-searching

A man wearing a kippa sits in front of two women wearing hijabs during discussion about Bill 60, Quebec’s Charter of Values at Concordia University in Montreal Thursday November 28, 2013. John Mahoney / THE GAZETTE

MARIAN SCOTT
MONTREAL GAZETTE

In his 59 years, Ron Schorndorf has never knowingly broken the law.

But the endocrinologist at the Jewish General Hospital plans to do just that if the Quebec government passes its secularism charter.

The proposed charter – tabled in November by the Parti QuĂ©bĂ©cois government – would bar public-sector workers, including teachers, professors, civil servants and doctors, from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, Sikh turban and Jewish kippah.

That means Schorndorf, an observant Jew, would be obliged to remove his kippah at work. But he has no intention of complying, and the Jewish General says it would refuse to implement a charter the hospital’s director, Lawrence Rosenberg, has called “patently discriminatory.” “As a responsible Quebec citizen, it is my absolute duty to say I will disobey this in all circumstances,” Schorndorf says.

The charter of values – also known as Bill 60 – has sharply divided public opinion, with 45 per cent of Quebecers in favour, 45 per cent against and 10 per cent undecided or refusing to answer, according to a LĂ©ger Marketing survey conducted in the first week of December.

But the deep wedge the bill has driven between Quebecers over the issue of banning religious garb isn’t its only impact. With universities, hospitals and municipalities condemning the charter as an attack on civil liberties, there is also the very real possibility not only citizens but major institutions will defy it if it is passed.

The McGill University Health Centre has said it will fight Bill 60 in court if it is passed in its current form.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec’s proposed Values Charter in Montreal on Sept. 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Four Montreal universities and the UniversitĂ© de Sherbrooke have strongly criticized the charter. The English Montreal School Board and the Lester B. Pearson School Board have weighed in against it. The city of Montreal opposes it and the town of Hampstead has declared it will not be complicit with a law that reeks of “hatred, racism and intolerance.” “It’s a deep clash of values,” says Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration.

“I think under these circumstances, with such a severe violation of human rights, that civil disobedience will be inevitable among schools, universities, municipalities and health institutions.”

As the Quebec government prepares for parliamentary hearings on Bill 60 starting Jan. 14, opponents are already raising the prospect of civil disobedience – defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.”

“I’m the first person to say you can’t disobey the law because you may not like it. I may not like paying my taxes, but I have to pay them,” said constitutional lawyer Julius Grey.

But when a law violates fundamental rights, civil disobedience is “a necessary safety valve,” he said. “It’s the essence of liberal democracy that when your conscience tells you can’t do something, you cannot do it,” Grey said.

“I think if it were to pass in this form and if there is an attempt made to enforce it, I think it would happen. I have no doubt people would say no to an order to dismiss an employee.”

Human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis said Bill 60 is causing soul-searching for usually law-abiding people who disagree with the charter. “As a lawyer, I believe in the rule of law and how law can have a transformative effect on society,” she said.

But there are times when non-compliance is justified, she said.

“I think our understanding of the rule of law has to include what the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized as an unwritten constitutional principle, which is respect for minority rights. So if you include that more robust understanding of rule of law into your definition, I think one could take the position that having exhausted all other remedies, the only remaining step is civil disobedience,” she said.

Social justice activist Jagghi Singh and Karina Chagnon hold a banner prior to discussion about Bill 60, Quebec’s Charter of Values at Concordia University in Montreal Thursday November 28, 2013. John Mahoney / THE GAZETTE

Eliadis said if the charter is adopted, a court challenge should be launched immediately. Normally, the law would remain in force during the appeal, unless the government suspended it until the courts ruled, she said.

Civil disobedience is not unknown in Quebec: Think back to the Printemps Ă©rable in 2012, when students defied emergency legislation restricting protest over planned tuition increases. But this time, it is not students taking to the streets in mass demonstrations sporting red squares but major institutions and individuals who don’t normally fit the profile of rabble rouser talking of flouting the law.

“I have a good sense that many people at this university at least will engage in acts of civil disobedience,” said Catherine Lu, an associate professor of political science at McGill University. Lu, who is not a Muslim, donned a hijab at work for one week in September to protest against the charter and is planning a second protest when the public consultations open.

“Should the legislation actually pass, I think you will see more people wearing visible religious symbols and I think you will have the support of the university not to enforce disciplinary measures, which will then put the government in kind of a bind,” she said.

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE THROUGHOUT HISTORY

Max Yalden, former chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said the best known examples of civil disobedience are the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the battle against apartheid in South Africa and Gandhi’s non-violent campaign to end British rule in India.

On Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. Her individual act of civil disobedience, which led to a bus boycott, became a catalyst for the civil rights movement and an international symbol of resistance. “Those laws were so egregiously bad that you had no choice but to defy them,” Yalden said. “When the law becomes so extremely excessively unacceptable, then people are bound to do something about it.”

In Canada, examples of civil disobedience include the 1990 Oka crisis, which dramatized First Nations land grievances.

In 1993, the arrest of more than 800 protesters protesting logging in the Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island drew international media attention to the environmental movement.

In 1935, at the height of the Depression, unemployed workers staged the On to Ottawa Trek, beginning in Vancouver. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s government brutally suppressed the march in Regina. The ruling Conservatives were badly tarnished in public opinion and lost the next election.

The problem with civil disobedience is that it highlights polarization and heightens tensions between opposing groups, Jedwab said.

“It would have a very destructive impact on relations between the communities that feel targeted and feel compelled to go this route, and the government,” he said.

“It’s a very severe risk to social harmony. It would mean a very high level of tension. It might be the end of any communication between government officials and the institutions,” Jedwab said.

However, Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at McGill University, thinks it’s unlikely the charter will result in civil disobedience since he doubts the government really intends to enforce the charter, should it pass.

“I can’t see the government going into Jewish General Hospital and start arresting nurses in hijabs and doctors in kippahs,” he said.

While half of Quebecers (and 54 per cent of francophones) say they agree with the charter, most don’t want to see people fired for wearing religious symbols, Weinstock said.

“What I think deep down is that the government realizes this will never be implemented. This is just a way of garnering electoral support. And so the ideal situation for the government is one in which the government never has to go to the point of doing the thing that people don’t want them to do, which is actually enforce it,” he said. But Lu said she doesn’t think it’s a safe assumption the bill will never be implemented.

“A lot of people say to me, the bill’s not going to pass, you don’t have to worry about civil disobedience. But I just don’t know because they also said there’s never going to be a bill. I’m preparing for all contingencies,” she said.

“And I think we have to be committed to it, that if they really pass this, then we have to engage in massive acts of civil disobedience. It will just show the plain impossibility of implementing the law.”

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