Allan Woods, The Star, September 23, 2013
A former Supreme Court of Canada judge, who claims she sees more veiled women in Quebec than in her travels to Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Morocco, is expected to line up behind the Parti Québécois’ charter of values and lend her legal credibility to the proposed ban on religious clothing in the public service.
The province’s minority government argues that its initiative will bring to heel a growing wave of unreasonable faith-based exceptions from societal and workplace rules,guarantee equality of the sexes in the province and reinforce the religious neutrality of the state.
The many critics in the political, legal and academic arenas warn the proposal would violate religious freedoms already enshrined in Canadian and Quebec charter rights and inevitably be ruled unconstitutional.
But Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, who sat on the country’s top court from 1987 until 2002, argued in a lengthy May 2013 radio interview that some rights are more fundamental than others and that, in Canada, the right to equality trumps religion.
“My vision is that there are fundamental rights. The right to live is fundamental. There is no accommodation . . . . Equality is the same thing,” she told Radio-Canada host Michel Lacombe.
“There are also civil liberties that are extremely important, but they’re not on the same level. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are another thing. They are civil liberties that can be reduced by what is reasonable in a free and democratic society.”
L’Heureux-Dubé said that in travels abroad for legal conferences, she has noticed that the face of females in the Muslim world is increasingly one that is uncovered.
“There are more uncovered faces in Pakistan and Morocco and all those places than there are here.”
L’Heureux Dubé did not respond to an interview request Monday but she is confirmed as a member of Rassemblement pour la laïcité (Rally for Secularism), which will present itself Tuesday morning as a diverse group of union leaders, academics, politicians and activists in support a strictly secular Quebec.
A spokesperson for the group said the retired judge was out of the country.
The organization spokesperson, Michèle Sirois, would not discuss the details of their position, though many members have long-held positions in favour of a ban on religious clothing for police officers, teachers, doctors, daycare workers and any others who receive a paycheque from the provincial government.
Others have also argued that the crucifix that hangs in the Quebec legislature should be removed — a position that the PQ government has rejected by arguing that the symbol of Catholicism is a reminder of the province’s heritage.
The legal reasons underpinning L’Heureux Dubé’s position on secularism would seem to be in line with that of the legal advice provided to the PQ government last spring that sections of both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms allow for laws that make a reasonable infringement on certain constitutional rights.
But her support for more strict rules around religious neutrality in the public sector and the equality between men and women is a lifetime in the making for the first female Supreme Court justice from Quebec, who has a reputation as a staunch advocate of social justice that often put her at odds with her fellow judges.
She held nothing back in the May interview, saying that complete face covering for Muslim women was a sign of “oppression” and that explicit rules on what is unacceptable in the name of secularism will ensure that immigrants “become like us.”
L’Heureux-Dubé praised France for fighting so long and hard to instill its secular state where freedom and equality are the founding motto. She said the laissez-faire approach taken in the United Kingdom would be a disastrous model for Quebec.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois put forward a similar pro-France justification in a recent interview defending her government’s values charter, controversially saying that in England, “they argue and throw bombs at each other because it’s multiculturalism and people are no longer able to see themselves in that society.”