Monday, September 04, 2017

On discriminatory treatment

Following up on this post, let's take a look at Tom Parkin's other recent post which offers plenty of food for thought. Parkin's view broadly matches Guy Caron's position on Quebec's treatment of people who wear niqabs - but seems to me to fall short of making the case for deferring to Quebec's politicians when it comes to basic principles of inclusion and nondiscrimination.

At the outset, Parkin and Caron both disagree on the merits with legislation such as Bill 62 denying service to women based on what they wear. So the argument boils down to whether there's a particular reason to hold back in discussing harmful legislation - or offer artificial "respect" to a view which is both wrong in policy, and based in part on discriminatory intent - because of the nature of the body which has passed it.

And the NDP hasn't established a strict standard along similar lines before. For example, it worked on banning the mining and sale of asbestos in the face of a unanimous resolution of the National Assembly to continue the industry, and before any Quebec politician spoke out on the same side of the issue.

In addition to being on the right side of history on the merits, that action wasn't apparently seen as problematic based on the application of the Sherbrooke Declaration (PDF) - and certainly doesn't seem to have affected Jack Layton's strategy for building bridges in Quebec.

But is there something different in the combination of political and public views about the niqab? There, one has to ask whether any position is likely to hold up in the face of scrutiny. 

Needless to say, the prime example on that front is the federal Bill C-51 - which was viewed as a political slam-dunk for the Harper Cons until they ran into principled opposition from the NDP. Within months, Canadians had turned against the bill and the government which introduced it, while rewarding the party which had the backbone to speak up.

To be sure, there's no guarantee that public opinion would similarly change on Bill C-62. But it's dangerous to assume that public opinion is set in stone, particularly when one side of an issue hasn't been given a full hearing on the merits. And there's plenty of reason to doubt that the politics of exclusion in Quebec are as much a winner as they're assumed to be.

Key precedents include both the Parti Quebecois' fall from power as it tried to run on its Charter of Values, and the fact that the top two vote shares in 2015 federally (covering 62% of the popular vote) went to parties which opposed the Cons' attempt to discriminate against people who wear a niqab.

Moreover, there's an obvious opening to introduce new policies based on NDP values to Quebec's political scene.

It's undoubtedly for members of the new Quebec-based party to decide what their priorities are, and the federal party should pay close attention one way or the other. But I'd suggest some of the most important opportunities for the NPD-Quebec involve areas where it's possible to stand apart from the existing parties - and Bill 62 is one example where unanimity among current politicians may not match the public mood, particularly if there's a distinct choice on offer.

And that could lay the groundwork for what I'd hope will be the NDP's long-term plans to retake progressive terrain from the Libs.

In 2015, the difference in the effect of the niqab issue between the Libs and the NDP arose from the fact that the former was never challenged as the loudest voice on the side of opposing discrimination, while the latter hadn't yet spoken up on similar cultural issues. But that effect could be reversed if there's a link between a federal NDP and a Quebec counterpart which both take a forceful position against discrimination, while the Liberal brand is split from one level to the other. 

To conclude, there's always reason for skepticism about the political choice to stay silent in the face of false conventional wisdom. And even from the standpoint of political calculation, the NDP is likely better served confirming that voters who care about minority rights can count on it, rather than answering fundamental questions with an awkward silence or a jurisdictional dodge.


  1. Why NDP has said they will legislate what the National Assembly will and will not do on bill 62?

    None, they are all huff and no puff and in practice their positions are exactly like Cartons, but he is more honest.

    1. The question of what action could be taken at the federal level is another one entirely. Moral suasion is the first and easiest option, and participation in any court case a further step - Jagmeet Singh has indicated his support for the first, and left any decision on the second for when there's actually a decision to be made.

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  3. Hi Greg--the argument isn't that it's harmful to discuss Bill 62. It's that it's harmful to not discuss it with progressive Quebecers and that patronizing Quebecers will undermine that discussion. You and I agree the state has no right to tell people what they can or can't wear. We can fight for that principle legally--through courts--or politically. A legal fight could be sidesteped using 'notwithstanding.' That leaves the political strategy. The main progressive group, Quebec Solidaire, supports Bill 62. As long as that support exists, the PQ and CAQ can call this a debate about secuarlism. But if QS support dissolves, progressives in Quebec and across Canada will all be fighting on the same side and we can confront this problem for what we all think this really is--Islamophobia. I believe that fight needs to come from inside French-speaking Quebec and be rooted in the intellectual history of secularism. Harangues from outside will be detrimental.

  4. That strikes me more as an issue of tone than of avoiding the issue entirely. Indeed you've noted that there has been debate within Quebec's progressive community - and I'm not sure why the position of QS alone should be taken anybody else from engaging in that debate while recognizing that QS' position has a different foundation than that of other parties (and avoiding "harangues" as opposed to constructive engagement).