It has been fascinating to watch NDP leadership candidates twist themselves into pretzels over Quebec’s controversial Bill 62 which would prevent women with face coverings from delivering or obtaining government services.
All four candidates are kind of, sort of, opposed to it.
Quebec MP Guy Caron is personally against the bill, but believes that Quebec has a right to pass it due to its status as a “nation” within Canada and its unique perspective on secularism.
Candidates Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus are even more confusing. Although both apparently oppose the bill, they keep adding that they also respect Quebec and recognize the province’s strong views on the separation of church and state.
Jagmeet Singh has been firmer in his opposition, but refuses to say whether he would pursue the matter in the courts if he became prime minister.
In other words, all four oppose the bill in a way that they hope doesn’t lose them any votes in Quebec.
Watching politicians try to take both sides of an issue is always fun. But what has been more interesting is seeing the inability of our elected officials to speak intelligently about secularism in Canada.
Bill 62 is wrong. It doesn’t reflect an acceptable definition of secularism, Canadian values, or the values of the New Democratic Party.
Bill 62’s roots can be traced to an ongoing struggle within Quebec society about religion. Although once dominated by the Catholic church, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s saw many Quebecers reject the notion that faith should play any role in the public square.
This anti-religious sentiment is still strongly held but has been challenged by the arrival of many newcomers with strong religious beliefs to Quebec, particularly Muslims. It was captured in the PQ government’s introduction of a Quebec Charter of Values in 2013. This proposed law would have further codified state “secularism,” including a ban against the wearing of religious symbols by public sector employees. Although the provincial Liberals opposed the Charter in the 2014 election, they promised their own set of measures around religious accommodation, hence Bill 62.
Although not as draconian as the Charter of Values, Bill 62 captures its spirit. Wanting to foster “adherence to State religious neutrality,” it forbids the provision or receiving of public services while wearing a face covering, with some exceptions and possible accommodations.
Bill 62 is nothing more than an attack on Muslim women and an attempt to pander to anti-Islamic sentiment. Is Quebec society really being destabilized by scores of niqab- and burka-wearing women using their visual anonymity to undermine public services?
It also presents a view of secularism that in no way captures the notion of “State religious neutrality” that the government claims is the goal of the legislation.
There are countless definitions of secularism but most fall into one of two categories. One is about excluding faith from the public square and ensuring that as much of society as possible is free from religious influences. Proponents argue that because some might find religious positions offensive, particularly in a world that places so much value on personal choice and freedom, it needs to be minimized. Faith often becomes caricatured as backward, intent on imposing its narrow morality on non-believers and a danger to society’s stability. Those with this worldview want to limit faith to the private sphere. Some may even call for measures that “emancipate” followers from their ancient superstitions.
This perspective, which is clearly reflected in Bill 62, is far from neutral. Neutrality suggests that all are treated equally — both believers and unbelievers. Yet at the core of this interpretation of secularism seems to be the view that religious belief needs to play second fiddle to “modern, progressive, non-religious” attitudes.
There is another type of secularism. One that sees the role of the state as building a sense of common purpose by welcoming all views and perspectives to the table, including religious voices. And if one perspective challenges or upsets another one, the state’s role is to work to keep the peace and facilitate dialogue. State neutrality means neither favouring nor disfavouring one group over another, whether believers or non-believers.
This view of secularism sounds much more like Canada where we pride ourselves on our diversity and ability to live in peace. It also sounds much more like the New Democratic Party that likes to position itself as the voice of the marginalized, even when that voice challenges conventional thinking or established views.
Unqualified opposition to Bill 62 is a no-brainer for any candidate for the NDP leadership. The degree of hesitation among many of the candidates does not bode well. Although there is an ongoing debate over whether Tom Mulcair’s support for the niqab in the 2015 election hurt the New Democrats in Quebec, our current crop of leadership candidates should remember that the ultimate winner of that contest, Justin Trudeau, never wavered on the issue.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.