Bashing Bill 62

Criticism of Québec’s face-veil ban coming from elsewhere in Canada is neither hypocritical nor disproportionate

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail that has generated some discussion, at least in Québec, Jean Leclair remonstrates with “English Canadian politicians and journalists” for their criticism of Québec’s recently enacted legislation that could prevent women who wear face veils (and perhaps other people, such as those who wear sunglasses) from taking the bus or accessing any other public services. Prof. Leclair faults the classes that chatter in English for their hypocrisy and for the excesses of their rhetoric. With respect, it is he who is wrong.

Prof. Leclair thinks that English Canadian criticism of the former Bill 62 is hypocritical because the rest of Canada too has its share of racists and of people who support legislation targeting religious minorities. That is no doubt true. But it is no less true that in no province other than Québec has legislation similar to the “Charter of Values” that was proposed by Québec’s previous government, Bill 62, or beefed-up versions of the latter being proposed by both main opposition parties in Québec been enacted. To my knowledge, no provincial political party has made such legislation official policy. More broadly, no provincial political party has attempted to trade on or pander to the racism that undoubtedly exists in Canadian society in the way that all the main parties in Québec have done. The Conservative Party of Canada, in the death throes of the last federal election campaign, tried to do so, and having failed, abandoned the attempt. Prof. Leclair writes as if there is no difference between discriminatory attitudes existing in society and these attitudes being shared, or indulged for partisan purposes, by those in power. This is not so.

Prof. Leclair also thinks that the critics of Bill 62 are hypocrites insofar as they appear to him to celebrate the wearing of niqabs, or at least to be “stigmatizing all people who do not wish to ‘celebrate’ the right of a woman to wear a veil”. “How many” of them, he asks, “would rejoice if their daughter, one day, chose to wear one?” Prof. Leclair does not mention any names, and I am puzzled as to whether anyone actually is celebrating the fact that niqabs are being worn in Canada. What is worthy of celebration is the fact people are free to act in ways of which many, probably a majority, of their fellow citizens disapprove. Prof. Leclair insists that people should be free to criticize the wearing of the face veils without being accused of being racists, and I agree with him so far as this goes. But, once again, there is a difference between insisting that people are free to criticize others’ choices, even religiously-inspired ones, and defending their purported freedom to support or vote for policies that coerce those who make choices they deem wrong. Criticism is a right in a free society; coercion is not.

Prof. Leclair also argues that the criticism of Québec’s anti-veil (and perhaps anti-sunglasses) legislation is overwrought. After all, “Canada’s approach to the regulation of religious symbols and clothing … is not the only legal path followed in the liberal-democratic world”. A number of European countries have banned full-faced veils, and these bans have been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. This, to prof. Leclair, proves that, though the bans may be wrong ― as he thinks ―, they are not “synonymous with blind racism”. Yet I fail to see how the fact that some countries ― even some democratic countries ― do something should shield that thing from forceful criticism. Admittedly, I do not know whether Prof. Leclair personally has ever criticized, say, the American criminal justice system as barbaric, but plenty of people in Canada and in Europe do not hesitate to do so. Does prof. Leclair think they should all keep mum? For my part, I think that to the extent that human rights involve universal principles, there is nothing inherently untoward in arguing that the interpretation of these principles by another polity, or group of polities, is perverse.

And the European approach to face veils is indeed perverse. Whether or not it proceeds from “blind racism”, as I have argued here, the reasoning of the Strasbourg Court is repressive, and indeed totalitarian. It rests on the premises that the state is entitled to impose conditions on human interaction that the individuals doing the interacting do not wish to be subject to, and that individuals have some kind of obligation to enter into “open interpersonal relations” with others, whether or not they want to do so. This reasoning is incompatible with belief in a free society, where people decide whether they wish to interact with others, and on what terms, so long as they are refraining from using force or fraud and not harming third parties. Prof. Leclair insists that even if the banning face veils is wrong, it is not arbitrarily repressive, as if the state were “regulating such things as baseball caps or miniskirts”. Face veils are associated with oppression against women, and the desire to outlaw them is therefore comprehensible even if misguided. I’m not sure about skirt length requirements, but certainly prohibitions on women joining certain occupations, or working outside the home at all, or voting, were once justified by claims that these activities took away women’s dignity. We have learned not just to politely disagree with such claims, but to reject them out of hand (which, of course, does not mean to shout them down or censor them). I hope that, in due course, we will also learn to reject out of hand claims that the dignity of women requires them to be prevented from dressing in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In my view, then, Prof. Leclair and others who, like him, disagree with Québec’s ban on face veils and proposals to extend this ban are wrong to object to the criticism with which this ban has been received in the rest of the country. This criticism is not made hypocritical by the existence of racist citizens outside Québec, nor is it made disproportionate by the fact that similar bans are regarded as acceptable in Europe. Prof. Leclair and others might view the criticism as an instance of “Québec-bashing”, the application of double standards to their province. Their are mistaken. Not only is there no double standard, as I’ve argued above, but the intensity of the criticism is, at least in part, likely driven by a recognition of the existence of the chauvinist and illiberal tendencies elsewhere in Canada. There might be no need to criticise Québec’s legislation so much if we were certain that it would never be replicated elsewhere. But precisely because there can be no such assurance, it is important that scholars, journalists, and politicians across Canada denounce it for what it is ― a manifestation of bigoted illiberalism.

Le visage de l’oppression

Dans une décision rendue hier, S.A.S. c. France, la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme a statué que l’interdiction du voile intégral par la France n’enfreint pas la garantie de liberté religieuse de la Convention européenne des droits l’homme. Bien que les juges majoritaires soient manifestement sceptiques d’au moins certains des arguments invoqués au soutien de l’interdiction, ils acceptent (non sans hésitation), qu’un gouvernement démocratiquement élu peut raisonnablement conclure que celle-ci est nécessaire pour assurer la capacité des citoyens de vivre ensemble, et de protéger ainsi leurs droits, et qu’elle constitue donc une limite à la liberté de religion acceptable dans une société démocratique. J’aimerais commenter brièvement le raisonnement de la Cour, parce que les arguments qu’elle a acceptés ont trouvé écho de ce côté-ci de l’Atlantique. Ces arguments, pourtant, relèvent d’une pensée dangereusement oppressive.

Il faut souligner, cependant, que la Cour européenne a rejeté certains des arguments les plus communs au soutien des interdictions, plus ou moins étendues, du voile et d’autres « symboles religieux ostentatoires ». Le besoin d’assurer la sécurité peut justifier de demander aux personnes voilées de retirer leur voile pour être identifiées mais, sauf situation de crise, pas une interdiction générale. L’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes ne saurait être invoquée pour

interdire une pratique que des femmes – telle la requérante – revendiquent dans le cadre de l’exercice des droits [protégés], sauf à admettre que l’on puisse à ce titre prétendre protéger des individus contre l’exercice de leurs propres droits et libertés fondamentaux. (Par. 119)

Quant à la dignité humaine, il n’y a

aucun élément susceptible de conduire à considérer que les femmes qui portent le voile intégral entendent exprimer une forme de mépris à l’égard de ceux qu’elles croisent ou porter autrement atteinte à la dignité d’autrui. (Par. 120)

L’argument que la Cour accepte ― qu’elle dit « p[ouvoir] comprendre » ―, c’est que l’interdiction du voile intégrale sert à prévenir

des pratiques ou des attitudes mettant fondamentalement en cause la possibilité de relations interpersonnelles ouvertes qui, en vertu d’un consensus établi, est un élément indispensable à la vie collective au sein de la société considérée. La Cour peut donc admettre que la clôture qu’oppose aux autres le voile cachant le visage soit perçue par l’État défendeur comme portant atteinte au droit d’autrui d’évoluer dans un espace de sociabilité facilitant la vie ensemble. (Par. 122)

La Cour accepte la prétention de la France à l’effet que l’interdiction du voile intégral sert à assurer le maintien de « conditions minimales de vivre-ensemble », parce qu’il est possible qu’

un État juge essentiel d’accorder dans ce cadre une importance particulière à l’interaction entre les individus et qu’il considère qu’elle se trouve altérée par le fait que certains dissimulent leur visage dans l’espace public. (Par. 141)

J’admets, volontiers, que l’interaction avec une personne dont le visage est voilée peut mettre mal à l’aise. Cependant, un malaise qu’on peut éprouver  face au voile intégral ne saurait justifier son interdiction générale. Je doute, en fait, que même dans les contextes où l’interaction n’est pas volontaire ― comme elle l’est, par exemple, pour un citoyen qui fait face à une fonctionnaire voilée ― le malaise que peut éprouver le citoyen, si compréhensible soit-il, soit une meilleure justification pour une interdiction que le malaise qu’on pu éprouver bien des gens dans le passé, et que certains éprouvent encore, face à la nécessité d’interagir avec une personne d’une autre race. Du reste, ceux qui soutiennent l’interdiction du voile sont les premiers à refuser toute concession à une personne qui refuserait d’interagir avec une fonctionnaire (ou un médecin, etc.) femme. La même logique ― le malaise face à la différence n’est pas un sentiment qu’une société égalitaire doit accommoder ― milite contre l’interdiction du voile même pour les fonctionnaires.

Quoi qu’il en soit, il faut davantage que de la sympathie pour les personnes contraintes à vivre un malaise pour justifier l’interdiction du voile intégral non seulement pour les personnes avec qui d’autres pourraient forcées d’interagir, mais pour quiconque se trouve dans l’espace public. À cet égard, le raisonnement de la Cour européenne est doublement pernicieux. D’une part, la prétention, que l’État puisse définir les « conditions minimales de vivre ensemble » sans égard à ce que les personnes qui vivent ensemble en pensent elles-mêmes est essentiellement totalitaire. Si j’accepte d’interagir, dans mes rapports privés, avec une personne voilée, de quel droit l’État peut-il me dire que je ne peux pas le faire? Le raisonnement accepté par la Cour autoriserait, par exemple, l’interdiction de l’usage de langues autres que celle de la majorité, et que sais-je encore. D’autre part, il y a également quelque chose de totalitaire à prétendre qu’il y a un quelconque « droit » d’entrer dans une « relation interpersonnelle ouverte » avec une autre personne, que cette personne le veuille ou non, droit que le port du voile par celle-ci compromettrait. Au contraire, si une personne ne veut pas interagir avec autrui, elle a parfaitement le droit de ne pas le faire. Si elle le manifeste, que ce soit par le port du voile ou d’une autre façon, c’est son affaire.

Les gouvernements qui imposent les interdictions sur le voile intégral, et les tribunaux qui avalisent ces interdictions, ne font pas que forcer des femmes à dévoiler leur visage. Ils dévoilent aussi le leur. Et c’est celui de l’oppression.

ADDENDUM: J’ai publié ce billet sans avoir pris le temps de lire le jugement dissident. Or, celui-ci affirme, fort justement (aux pars. 8-9) qu’

on peut difficilement prétendre que tout individu ait un droit d’entrer en contact avec d’autres personnes dans l’espace public contre la volonté de celles-ci. Sinon, pareil droit devrait avoir une obligation pour corollaire, ce qui serait incompatible avec l’esprit de la Convention. Si la communication est essentielle pour la vie en société, le droit au respect de la vie privée comprend également le droit de ne pas communiquer et de ne pas entrer en contact avec autrui dans l’espace public – en somme, le droit d’être un « outsider ».

 Il est vrai que le « vivre ensemble » requiert la possibilité d’échanges interpersonnels. Il est également vrai que le visage joue un rôle important dans les interactions humaines. Mais cette idée ne peut pas être détournée pour justifier la conclusion selon laquelle aucune interaction humaine n’est possible si le visage est intégralement dissimulé. Nous en voulons pour preuves des exemples parfaitement admis dans la culture européenne, tels que le port de casques intégraux pour la pratique du ski et de la moto, ou le port de costumes pendant le carnaval. Nul ne prétendrait qu’en pareilles situations (qui font partie des exceptions prévues par le droit français) les exigences minimales de la vie en société ne soient pas respectées. Les personnes socialisent sans forcément se regarder dans les yeux.

Voice after Exit, European Edition

I wrote last year about a court challenge by two Canadian citizens living in the United States to a  provision of the Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000 c. 9 (CEA), which prohibits Canadians who have resided abroad for more than five consecutive years (except members of the Canadian forces, civil servants, diplomats, and employees of international organization) from voting in federal elections. (The applicants or their lawyers have set up a website documenting their case, on which they have made available their application, affidavits, and exhibits ― which I think is a very commendable thing to do in a public interest case like this; a more general website advocating voting rights for Canadians abroad is here.)

In Charter cases such as this, courts often refer to the law of other countries, particularly when deciding whether a limitation of Charter rights is “demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society” and so constitutional pursuant to s. 1 of the Charter. So a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue is worth commenting on.

The Court was faced with a challenge by Harry Shindler, a British citizen resident in Italy to legislation disenfranchising citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. Whatever the situation of expatriates might have been in the past, Mr. Shindler argued, it is now easy for citizens living abroad to remain in contact with and engaged with the affairs of their home country. In his own case, he receives a pension from the U.K., pays taxes there, and is an active member of a number of British organizations. And he remains, of course, entitled to return to the U.K. at any time. The U.K. government, however, claimed that the ties between an expat and his home country wither over time, and that the small number of British citizens who register to vote overseas supports this contention. Although some citizens retain strong ties with their home country, it would be impracticable to premise the right to vote on each person’s engagement; a one-size-fits-all rule is necessary.

The Court found that, under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to vote could be limited to further “any aim which is compatible with the principle of the rule of law and with the general objectives of the Convention” (par. 101). It also referred to its prior case law, in which it held that limiting expatriates’ voting rights was permissible. That is because

 first, the presumption that non-resident citizens were less directly or less continually concerned with their country’s day-to-day problems and had less knowledge of them; second, the fact that non-resident citizens had less influence on the selection of candidates or on the formulation of their electoral programmes; third, the close connection between the right to vote in parliamentary elections and the fact of being directly affected by the acts of the political bodies so elected; and fourth, the legitimate concern the legislature might have to limit the influence of citizens living abroad in elections on issues which, while admittedly fundamental, primarily affect persons living in the country (par. 105).

The court takes note of the social and technological changes that have made it easier for expatriates to retain their ties to their home countries. It also observes that various European bodies concerned with democratic rights have not (yet) concluded that countries were required to grant expatriates an unrestricted right to vote, although agreement that this was a good idea seemed to be emerging. And it holds, in somewhat conclusory fashion, that the disenfranchisement of expatriates after 15 years, “which is not an unsubstantial period of time” (par. 116), is not disproportionate to the government’s objective of ensuring that only those citizens with a sufficiently close connection to the U.K. be able to vote. An individualized assessment of a citizen’s ties to his home country would be too much of a burden to impose on the state.

I do not find this decision persuasive. The whole idea of expatriates otherwise lacking interest in the affairs of their home country suddenly showing up to vote strikes me as quite fanciful. The fact that few British citizens abroad register to vote may or may not suggest that most expatriates do not care, but it certainly suggests that those who do not care will not bother with voting. It is only the committed (few) who will take the trouble. The alleged objective of the disenfranchisement of expatriates is, in my view, nothing more than a post hoc dressing up of an old prejudice, no longer warranted if it ever was. One could also argue that the distinction between residents and expatriates based on their assumed level of knowledge about politics is also likely to be illusory, or at least rather less significant than usually assumed, because of the serious problems of political ignorance that affect the democratic process of every country (which Ilya Somin frequently discusses on the Volokh Conspiracy). So while it is true that an individualized assessment of engagement as a qualification for voting would be very burdensome and perhaps impossible to administer objectively and impartially (though prof. Somin has argued for similar assessments of political knowledge as a condition for extending the franchise to minors), this is really beside the point. There is simply no good reason for the law to distinguish between resident citizens and expatriates, regardless of how that distinction might be implemented.

Before concluding, I want to mention one feature of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that I find puzzling: the attention devoted to the right, or lack thereof, of people disenfranchised by their country of nationality for residing abroad to vote in elections in their country of residence. It seems to me that the right to vote does not attach only to a person, so that everyone ought to be able to vote somewhere―anywhere―but, so long as one is able to vote somewhere, there is no problem with denying him the vote elsewhere. A right to vote is a right to participate in the political life of a specific community. Being granted permission to participate in the life of another community cannot remedy one’s exclusion from that to which one always belonged (nor does denial of such a permission make the exclusion any worse).

However that may be, I retain the view that I expressed in my original post on this topic:

[T]he denial of this right to those living abroad looks perfectly arbitrary. As with the prisoners [whose disenfranchisement the Supreme Court held to be unconstitutional in  Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519], it is a judgment that they are not morally worthy to vote – and such judgments are not open to Parliament, according to Sauvé.