Le Point Godwin

J’ai promis, dans mon dernier billet, où j’analysais la constitutionnalité de la « Charte des valeurs » proposée par le gouvernement du Québec, de dire des méchancetés au sujet de celle-ci. Eh bien, en voici la plus grande. Ce projet ressemble drôlement à une loi Nazie de 1933, la Loi sur la restauration de la fonction publique (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, GWB). Cette loi, proclamée seulement quelques mois après l’arrivée d’Hitler au pouvoir, a exclu de la fonction publique et de l’enseignement les personnes d’ascendance « non-aryenne » ― c’est à dire les Juifs ― ainsi que les indésirables politiques. En ce qui me concerne, j’ai du mal à voir en quoi l’expulsion de fonctionnaires, de profs, de médecins ou d’éducatrices dont la religion leur impose le port de signes qualifiés d’ « ostentatoires » en vertu de la « Charte des valeurs » est différente de cette première purge nazie.

Il me vient à l’esprit un seul argument possible ― possible, mais non persuasif. Être Juif, selon la compréhension nazie, n’était qu’une question de sang. Ce n’était, évidemment, pas un choix qu’une personne pouvait faire. Porter un symbole religieux ostentatoire, dira-t-on peut-être, est un choix. La première ministre a prétendu qu’ « on peut aider cette personne-là sûrement à cheminer et à accepter de vivre avec les règles que la société se donne ».

C’est du délire. La personne qui sent un devoir supérieur de porter un voile, une kippa, un turban ne peut pas « cheminer » pour, graduellement, changer d’avis. Elle peut, contre sa conscience, se soumettre à la force. Certaines le feront. La plupart ne le feront pas, parce qu’elles se sentent incapables de le faire. La foi peut se manifester, entre autres, par un choix vestimentaire, mais elle n’est une chose superficielle à laquelle on peut renoncer pour le bien commun. L’obligation qu’on éprouve envers sa conscience est supérieure à celle qu’on éprouve envers la loi, envers la société. Mme. Marois et tous ceux qui soutiennent le projet de son gouvernement s’en rendraient compte d’ailleurs, s’ils prenaient le temps de se demander comment ils se sentiraient si, disons, un autre gouvernement ré-instituait le Serment du test. En bonne conscience, on n’a pas plus le choix de ses obligations religieuses que de sa race, de sa nationalité ou de son sexe.

C’est pourquoi j’insiste sur ce parallèle entre la proposition du PQ et la loi nazie sur la fonction publique. Attention: je ne dis pas que les péquistes sont des nazis. Je suis loin de croire, par exemple, que le PQ s’est inspiré d’Hitler pour façonner sa  proposition. Non, au contraire, il est fort probable les auteurs de celle-ci soient tout simplement ignorants de l’histoire. Je ne dis pas, non plus, que si Hitler, ayant commencé par la purge de la fonction publique, a fini par les chambres à gaz, le PQ va en faire autant. Certainement pas. Je fais seulement le parallèle entre deux politiques spécifiques.

Je m’attends néanmoins à ce qu’on m’invoque « la loi Godwin », ou plutôt l’interprétation de cette loi voulant que la personne qui compare son adversaire aux Nazis doit être considérée comme ayant, ipso facto, perdu l’argument. Sauf que, cette « loi » ne saurait être érigée en dogme. Comme l’explique, par exemple, Glenn Greenwald, on n’a pas besoin d’avoir construit des chambres à gaz pour faire certaines des choses qui ont rendu Adolf Hitler l’homme le plus honni de l’histoire. Lorsqu’un politicien fait une de ces choses, invoquer la loi Godwin comme argument massue destiné à mettre fin à la discussion n’est qu’un moyen d’éviter une  discussion inconfortable ― exactement la même chose que la comparaison à Hitler sert à accomplir dans les cas proprement visés par la loi Godwin.

Je ne veux pas, moi, mettre fin à la discussion ― encore que j’eusse préférée que la discussion autour de la « Charte des valeurs » n’ait pas eu lieu. Cependant, puisque cette discussion nous a été imposée, je pense qu’elle gagnerait à tenir compte de faits historiques pertinents. La « Charte des valeurs » est une énormité sans précédent dans l’histoire récente du Québec et du Canada. Il est impératif de bien en saisir l’ampleur.

ADDENDUM: Je souligne, au passage, pour ceux qui seraient intéressés à purifier le discours politique des références nazies qu’ils feraient bien de commencer par la désignation de ce qu’on appelle en anglais le Kitchen Accord comme la « Nuit des longs couteaux ».

ADDENDUM #2: Je réponds à une critique de mon analogie, telle qu’articulée par Mathieu dans son commentaire ci-dessous, dans ce billet.

Of Course Not

The Québec government’s proposal for a “Charter of Québec Values” is now official. It’s not much of a proposal, actually ― there is no bill, and there isn’t going to be for months yet ― but we do have a fancy website on which the government explains what the Charter will do. (The English version isn’t all in English, but I don’t suppose one can expect better from the PQ government.)

The highlight proposal is, as had long been known, a prohibition on “conspicuous religious symbols” ― Jewish skullcaps, Muslim veils of any kind, Sikh Turbans, and large crosses, though not small ones (the government isn’t saying how large is large and how small is small) ― for any government employees, as well as those of public schools, public or subsidized childcare centres, universities, and hospitals. Some of the institutions affected (universities, hospitals, and municipalities) would have the right to exempt themselves from the application of this measure for renewable periods of five years. Others (notably schools) would not. Québec’s “heritage” would also be exempt from this measure ― so the rather conspicuous crucifix hanging in the National Assembly will stay right where it is. (There is no ban on prayer in municipal councils either ― though the government doesn’t even pretend to have a reason for that.)

Many nasty things have been said and will be said about this project. I will say some too here in the coming days. (UPDATE: Come to think of it, I have already been saying nasty things about it in my last post.) But, for the moment, I will start with a constitutional analysis, hopefully a relatively dispassionate one. La Presse has one here, concluding that the constitutionality of the government’s project is “far from certain”; the CBC, after much equivocation, concludes that “[w]hen the debate centres around religion, it’s fair to say the devil is in the details.” For my part though, I see little place for nuance. The ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols is obviously unconstitutional.

There can be no question that it is a breach of the Charter’s guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion” (s. 2(a)). As Justice Dickson (as he then was) said in R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295,

[t]he essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.

And it does not matter whether some “official” interpretation of a religion says that “conspicuous” symbols are not mandatory. As the Supreme Court held in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, if a person sincerely believes that she must wear the veil, or that he must wear the turban, then she or he has a constitutional right to do so.

Like all other Charter rights, the freedom of religion is “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (s. 1). This means that restrictions on religious liberty must have some “pressing and substantial” objective, that they must be “rationally connected” to that objective, that they must be as limited as possible to achieve that objective, and that their overall positive effects must outweigh the negative ones. The ban on religious symbols will not pass this test.

The objectives invoked by the Québec government ― the need for common rules, state neutrality, and equality of men and women ― sound important enough. In any case, the Supreme Court has almost always been very deferential to governments at that stage of the test. The same is true of the “rational connection” stage. Yet here already, the government’s case might begin to crumble. It is by no means clear, for instance, how gender equality is served by prohibiting not only the veil (which even Bernard Drainville, the author of the government’s proposals, recognizes isn’t necessarily a symbol of oppression), but also the yarmulke and the turban, or indeed how banning Muslim women from the public service will advance the cause of their equality. Still, it is likely enough that courts will find that these measures are rationally connected at least to the objective of state neutrality, and also to that of having common rules.

The ban will, however, fail the “minimal impairment” stage of the test. Common rules, of course, can be permissive as well as restrictive. A blanket ban on religious symbols is by no means the least restrictive measure that can achieve this aim. As for state neutrality, it is important to note that the government, which bears the burden of proof under s. 1 of the Charter, has no evidence at all of any problems with the neutrality of civil servants or state institutions. (Much like Stockwell Day, who justified the federal government’s “tough on crime” legislative agenda by an alleged increase in “unreported crime,” Mr. Drainville claims that people are too reluctant to report such incidents.) The Supreme Court has sometimes “relied on logic, reason and some social science evidence in the course of the justification analysis” (Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, at par. 78), but, as Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, at par. 18, “one must be wary of stereotypes cloaked as common sense, and of substituting deference for the reasoned demonstration required by s. 1.” And the Québec government doesn’t even have the fig leaf of social science evidence which the federal government had in Harper. In addition, the blanket ban proposed by the government is overbroad, because it applies even to state employees who are not in contact with the public or could not be said, by any reasonable person, to represent the authority of the state (say school janitors or hospital cooks). At the same time, the fact that the government is willing to make exceptions for many employees suggests that a blanket ban isn’t actually necessary. In short, I fail to see how the government might succeed in demonstrating that the ban is “minimally impairing” of its employees’ rights.

Finally, when it comes to balancing the salutary and the deleterious effects of the policy, the latter clearly prevail. Because there is no real problem with a lack, or even a perception of a lack, of neutrality in state institutions. Furthermore, because of its patchwork nature, the ban achieves very little, except symbolically. On the other hand, those who challenge it will have no difficulty in demonstrating that its negative effects, notably in forcing people to choose between their faith and their employment ― a choice that will lead to people being forced out of their jobs ― will be considerable.

Thus it is quite clear to me that the ban on state employees wearing religious symbols is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom. I am also pretty confident that it is a breach of equality rights protected by s. 15 of the Charter, because it has a disproportionate effect on the members of those religions whose symbols are “conspicuous,” which happens to exclude the numerically and politically dominant groups in Québec (the Catholics and the non-religious). Its burden falls squarely on minorities who have faced a history of discrimination, and the courts do not look kindly on such things.

The Québec government insists that it will not use the “notwithstanding” clause if and when it enacts the “Charter of values”, because it is confident that its constitutionality will be upheld. It will not be. Of course not.

UPDATE: Pour ceux qui voudraient lire une analyse en français, je recommande cet article de Radio-Canada explorant la question avec le doyen de la faculté de droit civil de l’Université d’Ottawa, Sébastien Grammond.

The Harm Is Not in Hate Speech

I wanted to come back to the sad events of last weekend, when a mosque in Saguenay, in Québec, was smeared with, purportedly, pig blood, and angry letters were sent both to the mosque and to the local Radio-Canada station, demanding that Muslims “assimilate or go home.” As Radio-Canda reported, police are considering charges, both for vandalism and for hate speech ― though they’d have to find those who did it first. (I don’t think I’ve seen any good news on that front.) The community leaders, however, stress that this is an outlying incident, and that the town, or the province, should not be judged by it. Fair enough. But, as others point out, the current climate in Québec, with the government’s proposal, to be finally unveiled on Monday, of a “Charter of Québec Values” stressing secularism ― or, more accurately, suppressing much visible expression of non-Christian religious beliefs while preserving, under the label of “cultural heritage,” Christian symbols such as the crucifix which Maurice Duplessis had hung in the National Assembly ― is a context which we cannot ignore when thinking about the significance of the attack on the mosque.

There is always a danger in trying to link a single crime to some wrong, real or perceived, in the society at large, as people are too often tempted to do in response, say, to mass shootings. However, when a crime seems to have a political purpose, such a link probably ought to exist, if only in the mind of the criminal. This is not to say that society in general or some individual politicians to whose decisions the criminal is reacting have caused or are directly responsible for the crime. Without more, it also does not mean that they have done anything wrong. No one committed any wrong that could have justified FLQ terrorism for instance, though it obviously was a response to the political situation of the late 1960s Québec. But, quite clearly, sometimes politicians do contribute to creating a social climate in which certain sorts of crimes become more likely, even without calling for or even directly encouraging their commission. An obvious current example is Russia, where the enactment homophobic legislation is coinciding with a rise in brutal anti-gay violence.

The situation in Québec right now is, I am afraid, not dissimilar. Much of recent talk of “Québec values” and “secularism” and even, alas, “male-female equality” is code for expressing, in terms that are intended to be acceptable in and indeed appealing to polite society, a barely disguised hostility to those who look and think differently from the majority ― above all, religious Muslims. Instead of trying to convince the people insecure at the prospect of social change that Québec will not be different for looking different, the government is fanning the flames by embracing this language. And so, although I fully believe that Québec’s Premier is sincere in her denunciation of the mosque attack, the policies of her government give heart to those who think like the attack’s perpetrators, and tell those against whom the attack was directed that they are not welcome here. Even assuming that this is not these policies’ intent, it is their foreseeable effect.

And this brings me to the legal point pf this post. I wrote at great length last fall about Jeremy Waldron’s book on The Harm in Hate Speech. As I explained here, the core of Prof. Waldron’s argument “that hate speech must be prohibited in order to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.” Although the society’s laws might, objectively considered, be egalitarian and welcoming, visible expressions of hatred and contempt undermine the promise of these laws, and must be banned. I also wrote that I was not persuaded by prof. Waldron’s claims. Now the attack on the mosque in Saguenay, and the letters that accompanied it, seem to be a perfect illustration of the sort of thing that worries prof. Waldron ― a visible manifestation of hatred obviously intended to tell its victims that they are they are at best, second-class citizens, and indeed not welcome at all in the society, whatever our other laws might say. Was I wrong to disagree with prof. Waldron? I still do not think so. As the reaction of the local community leaders shows, they are not particularly worried about what they know is an isolated act. It is not that which seriously undermines the assurance of their equal citizenship.

The talk surrounding the forthcoming Charter of Québec Values is a different matter. Because it comes from on high, it does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard, including that proposed by prof. Waldron.

My point, of course, is not that we ought to change the law so as to allow us to drag the members of the Québec government before the criminal courts. It would not be possible to word the law in a way that would not prevent all sorts of legitimate debates and create massive chilling effects. Nor should we even try. Bad ideas ― including bad ideas that would relegate some of our fellow-citizens to the margins of society ― ought, if at all possible, be defeated politically. But that is not to say that such ideas, even if they eventually are defeated, are harmless. Yet the harm about which prof. Waldron worries is not so much in hate speech. It is, to a much greater extent, in the polite-sounding pronouncements of the the cynics who try to use an undercurrent of bigotry and hatred to their electoral advantage.