Could controversial Quebec policy normalize discrimination?

Ban on symbols would affect public officials in positions of authority
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2019
Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) party leader Francois Legault shakes hands with supporters in Quebec City on Oct. 1. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The political battle to ban religious symbols from Quebec’s public sector has emerged once again following the latest provincial election.

Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) leader and Premier-designate François Legault has indicated his party will ensure public officials in positions of authority do not wear religious symbols — and will invoke the charter’s notwithstanding clause if necessary to force the issue.

Legault’s electoral platform also includes plans to take in 10,000 fewer immigrants per year, and to test new residents on French and Quebec values within three years of their arrival.

The outgoing Liberal government’s legislative attempt to have public sector employees work with their faces uncovered is also facing a court challenge.

The CAQ cabinet will be sworn in Oct. 18.

Legault’s ban would affect the likes of teachers, judges, police and correctional officers. The hardline stance would see workers who refuse to remove religious symbols assigned to different jobs or dismissed.

“Those people will be free to relocate to another job that will not be in an authority situation,” said CAQ member Geneviève Guilbault, according to the Canadian Press. “It will be up to them at that point to make the necessary choice.”

Trickle-down effect

The move marks a very controversial beginning to the CAQ’s rule in Quebec, said Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal.

“That’s a very pervasive intrusion on the part of government to regulate people’s code of dress and everything — freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression. That’s very disturbing and that’s where the government got a lot of negative reaction from the teachers’ unions.”

The issue has been hotly debated over the last decade in Quebec, due to cultural insecurities and inappropriate stereotypes — often at the expense of minority rights, said Niemi.

“As long as the notion of the protection of minority rights is absent as a fundamental Quebec value, then we continue to have this kind of dynamic tension.”

And if an anti-religion mindset becomes entrenched in the public sector, it will eventually drift into the private sector, he said.

“Once its legal and it’s legitimate to discriminate against… in this case, Muslims in the public sector for those category positions, over time, it will become the new normal,” he said.

“That’s exactly what we believe and what we fear.”

Social backlash may eventually force the CAQ to waver on its agenda — such as consideration of a “grandfather clause” on the issue — said Julius Grey, senior partner at Grey Casgrain in Montreal.

“It’s so clear that the idea is silly,” he said. “This type of egalitarianism — ‘Everybody has to be dressed the same way’ — does nothing for substantive equality.”

“There are fewer things that make less sense than imposing such restrictions. It means debating unimportant issues and excluding immigrants from positions… (and) by excluding the immigrants from those professions, you’re making their integration more difficult,” said Grey.

“You can see that immigrants have made a very important contribution to all sorts of professions, so excluding them is counterproductive.”

Advice for Quebec employers

Identifying core values and implementing policy are essential for employers looking to guard against tactics threatening diversity and inclusion, said Niemi.

“You have to spend time to work out a policy which outlines, among other things, your organization’s core values and mission,” he said.

“Those core values (are) very important because it sets the tone and it also creates the foundation from which internal and external behaviours and conduct will be defined.”

From there, a framework can be created to establish and guide HR policy — especially in terms of culture, religion and diversity, said Niemi.

“Part of the policy’s usefulness is to help avoid arbitrary decisions on the part of individuals who… may commit a mistake, and that can really spoil, among other things, human and labour relations.”

Private sector institutions will benefit if they ensure inclusive policies are in place, he said.

“The potential negative effects will be many,” said Niemi of a ban on religious symbols, such as a further rural-urban divide, a decline in future immigration and reduction in corporate investment.

“We live in a globally mobile economy. It’s something that people have to keep in mind. Because often the people who tend to be opposed to this religious/cultural/racial diversity are the people who are most resistant to globalization.”

Employers must also remember that they are required to accommodate employees up to the point of undue hardship, said Grey.

“My advice to anybody would be that you tolerate everything that can be reasonably tolerated,” he said. “Accommodate very widely and generally, unless what is demanded is intolerable. And there are very few times there are intolerable demands.”

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