Saturday, March 14, 2015

On dividing lines

For the most part, Joan Bryden's report signals that there isn't much controversy left arising out of Alexandre Boulerice's comments about niqabs in the civil service. But it's worth asking whether the trial balloon floated by Boulerice serves any purpose whatsoever:
Martin added that he has no problem with Boulerice's suggestion that a pan-Canadian commission — along the lines of Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2007 — should be created to find a consensus on how far the country should go to accommodate minority cultural and religious practices.

However, Dewar, whose riding is home to many civil servants, said there is no issue to resolve; he's never had a single complaint about public servants covering their faces.

"Why would you have a study on something that doesn't exist?"
Dewar is right to note that there's no apparent problem to solve which would merit study by a commission. But even if there were some complaints being raised about face coverings, we also shouldn't ignore the fact that there are existing answers as to how much accommodation is required.

In addition to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, individual rights are also protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory treatment based on national or ethnic origin and religion unless there's a bona fide requirement which justifies that treatment.

In the case of a civil servant, that would mean that any prohibition against wearing a niqab would have to be justified by evidence that having a covered face prevents an individual from performing a job. And nothing in the current discussion suggests that's an even remotely reasonable position.

The effect of a commission would then be at best to confirm the existing standard, and at worst to establish some new threshold which prioritizes an explicit distaste for minority cultural practices ahead of the current balance between individual beliefs and practices and bona fide job requirements.

Which is to say that Boulerice's call for a commission should be dismissed as quickly as any call to discriminate based on niqabs in particular. He's entitled to his personal views, but not to try to use public policy to require individuals to conform to them. And the NDP should take the important opportunity to be the only party standing up for that principle in stark contrast to the Cons and Libs, rather than looking for some arbitrary dividing line of its own.

Update: Haroon Siddiqui makes a similar point

[Edit: fixed wording.]

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