Letter to Premier Marois regarding Charter of Secularism

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2013-11-07 13:43:57 Category : Press releases

Traduction de la version originale française Madam Premier, In the context of the current debate on the religious neutrality of state institutions, the future development and higher interest of Quebec require that political parties act to unite Quebecers. A number of elements proposed by the opposition parties, notably the Quebec Liberal Party, constitute the very essence of what legislation on this matter should contain. Unfortunately, the tabling of your government’s bill is the exact opposite of a unifying gesture. It constitutes, in the words of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, an unprecedented attack on the rights and freedoms of Quebecers. It is now time to take a reasonable position in order to prevent a social division, the first signs of which have already started to appear. This past September 5th, I made public the results of the Quebec Liberal Party’s reflection on the religious neutrality of the State. This position is part of a constructive approach that aims to build the widest consensus possible around these complex and delicate questions. Allow me to summarize our position. Our Vision The Liberal Party vision for Quebec is inclusive, in keeping with the respect we hold for our common values, our individual freedoms and also with actions taken by numerous governments over the last decades. Our vision is rooted in the following principles:  A strong identification with Quebec and its distinct identity within Canada;   Our attachment to fundamental rights and freedoms as defined in our Charters of  rights, including gender equality;   Openness to the world, tolerance and inclusion.  Quebecers want their government to promote adherence to common principles that define our society. These widely shared principles include:   Gender equality;   The religious neutrality of state institutions;   The respect for individual rights in an inclusive, tolerant and open society.  Based on our vision and common values, we propose three concrete actions:  1. The choice of interculturalism as Quebec’s model of integration through the tabling a government policy, followed by consultations; 2. The inclusion of the principle of the religious neutrality of state institutions in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms; 3. A legislative framework, accompanied by a guidebook and an advisory service regarding accommodations. The proposed bill would include the following principles: clear guidelines, respect for rights and freedoms, equal rights for all, gender equality, the giving and receiving of public services with one’s face uncovered. Religious Neutrality of State Institutions

The inclusion of the principle of religious neutrality of state institutions in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms has wide support and the Quebec Liberal Party would support such an amendment. The term “neutrality” means that the State does not favour one religion over another, nor does it favour the absence of religion. Job discrimination based on religious sentiment or on cultural identity that is distinct from the identity of the majority constitutes the very opposite of neutrality. It is important to distinguish institutional secularism from individual secularism. The expression of spirituality and religious sentiment or its absence, constitute expressions of our human nature. Institutional secularism does not entail the denial or concealment of individual religious sentiment. It is not the role of the State to make such decisions for citizens. Gender Equality In Quebec, men and women, regardless of their social status, their education or their origin, have equal rights. This equality is a pillar of our society and was reinforced in our Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom by a liberal government in 2008. The importance of equal rights is clearly stated in the Manifesto for an Inclusive Quebec, which has received to date close to 30,000 signatories. The Manifesto reads: “... /Under the guise of promoting the neutrality of the State, the expected effect of the prohibition to wear any obvious religious symbol in fact would be to exclude citizens unable to choose between the requirements of their conscience and those of their job. It is precisely to avoid this kind of dilemma that the Charters of Rights have been protecting freedom of conscience and religion for over thirty years. .../the ban on religious symbols in the public service, schools and daycares can only exacerbate the exclusion of immigrants from the Quebec labour market. In this regard, the ban will only contribute to making women wearing the hijab more vulnerable and increase inequality between men and women, particularly in terms of access to employment. It is therefore to be expected that this charter, proffered as a tool to help achieve gender equality, would have the opposite effect.” There is of course little doubt that equality between women and men is a value shared by all Quebecers and that we must continue to promote the advancement of women toward equality. The True Foes: Fundamentalism and Extremism Religious fundamentalism and extremism of any kind are, in fact, the true foes of a lawful society such as ours. To assume that wearing any type of religious symbol constitutes a manifestation of such fundamentalism or extremism is blatantly simplistic. The proposed charter of values does not provide an adequate response or solution to either. In fact, by focussing on the Muslim community, this charter will deepen existing feelings of exclusion and discrimination and might even reinforce the feeling of alienation of some. How to combat fundamentalism without jeopardizing our rights and freedoms? That is the real question, rather than what is the appropriate dress code for state employees. The battle against fundamentalism and extremism requires a multipronged approach involving all levels of government within their respective jurisdictions. Our party plans to reflect further on this issue and identify concrete and effective actions to fight these phenomena. A Legislative Framework for Accommodations

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We have said on many occasions that we would never accept that an accommodation undermine the principle of equality between women and men. Furthermore, the principle of reciprocity to which we adhere, requires that the search for accommodation be part of a process that also includes an effort on the part of the person who makes the request, in order to find a reasonable solution for all. A legislative framework appears to be necessary in order to guide decision makers. We propose, as we did as early as 2010 (Bill 94), the adoption of a law that would: Identify the criteria allowing a manager to analyse a request for accommodation;  Define what constitutes an accommodation and provide guidelines;  Provide that public services be given and received with one's face uncovered.  The adoption of the law would be followed by the publication of a guide for all decision makers, and would expand the advisory service we implemented at the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse.  Face Uncovered  Public services must be given and received with one's face uncovered for the purposes of identification, communication and safety. This is a principle we have been upholding for the past three years.  Religious Symbols Worn by State Employees  A careful analysis of this question confirms that banning religious symbols is both unreasonable and contrary to our Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms as confirmed by a recent opinion made public by the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. Job discrimination in the public service is not a “Quebec value” and just like a large portion of Quebec society, we are opposed to this ban. The same opinion also concludes that  creating a sub-category of state employees with coercive powers to which the ban would apply is tenuous; the authoritative or coercive nature of a job varies according to circumstances. The citizens who hold these functions benefit from equal rights. In addition, their impartiality is constantly evaluated and all citizens have clear recourse to question it. Furthermore, there are no Quebec cases of a judge or a police officer who wear a religious symbol. The Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse did not find any argument to justify a ban applying to these persons. The term “ostentatious” is eminently subjective and leads to never-ending judicial debates. Are we talking about size? About colour? What criteria would be used to declare a symbol ostentatious? Finding the Broadest Consensus: the Only Reasonable Way to Govern On October 31st, 2012, at the opening session of the 40th legislature of the National Assembly, you gave a speech entitled: “Quebec for all” where you stated the following: “The government I lead will be open, will listen, and will focus on what unites Quebecers of all origins and spanning all generations. We will govern for all./... be assured that we will be open to receiving constructive proposals from the opposition./... We share this responsibility collectively and we will be judged according to our capacity to rally and to obtain results. Quebecers depend on all of us: let us act responsibly.”

More specifically, with regards to a charter of secularism, you said: “We have proposed the adoption of a charter of secularism, as well as a bill establishing Quebec citizenship. These fundamental proposals must benefit from the support of the greatest number.” With regards to individual rights and freedoms, fundamental attributes of our citizenship, it is mandatory for a government to aim for and obtain the largest consensus possible. The stakes are high and the issues should be treated respectfully, prudently and with great judgment. The Quebec of today and tomorrow should unite rather than divide, include rather than exclude, add rather than subtract, and must present to the world an image of a strong, confident and open society. Therefore I call for prudence and cooperation. In a civil society built on the neutrality of the State, open secularism, respect for our Charters of Rights and Freedoms and the Charter of the French Language, we are stronger and more united when we reach a consensus. In a just society the treatment of minorities cannot be decided by opinion polls, nor can such treatment be made an electoral issue. This would constitute an abuse of power by the majority. We should remember the words of Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural speech in 1801: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” I therefore ask you to modify your bill tabled today so as to include the consensual elements previously mentioned, and I ask you to set aside its divisive elements. More specifically, I ask that you not go forward with any legislative text that contravenes our Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The party I lead will never support any proposal that conflicts with our deep attachment to our rights and freedoms, paid dearly by those who have preceded us. On September 17th, 2012, on the occasion of the swearing in of the Parti que?be?cois MNAs, you stated: “My hope is to bring Quebecers together around what unites us.” In the current context of a debate on the neutrality of state institutions and a National Assembly made up of political parties, none of which holds a majority, you have the unique opportunity to fulfill this hope. In order to move Quebec forward and on the basis of what I have stated above, I want to assure you of the cooperation of all the Liberal Party members of the National Assembly. Only a law adopted unanimously by the National Assembly would have the necessary legitimacy required by such a sensitive issue. Indeed, this is how in 1975 the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was adopted. I remain, as always, available to discuss this matter further with you. Yours truly,

Philippe Couillard Leader of the Quebec Liberal Party

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