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.