Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Your rights are not immortal

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The Province of Quebec has raised the stakes in its drive to create a so-called secular state, where the symbols of religious affiliation would be banned from public offices and even from agencies and businesses that receive government support.

The legislation, which is tougher than originally promised, also curtails opt-out provisions for cities, educational institutions and hospitals. It even bans foods at daycares that might be interpreted as advancing a religious agenda, such as halal or kosher cuisine.

The minority Parti Québécois government says it is merely trying to promote religious neutrality and the equality of men and women.

While male religious headgear such as turbans would be banned, the legislation overwhelmingly targets Muslim women who wear veils, hijabs, niqabs and burqas, which the government says is evidence of the oppression of women and not a cultural or religious tradition freely worn.

Despite high-minded notions of secularism and equality, however, the real effect of the exclusionary measures is to banish the symbols of diversity and trample religious rights. It's the logical continuation of the province's efforts over the centuries to assert the primacy of the French language and Québécois culture.

Some professionals from minority groups have already said they would be forced to leave Quebec if the legislation was enacted. They would effectively be refugees within Canada, forced to flee in order to practise their religions.

The PQ has threatened to make the legislation a confidence matter, which the opposition has interpreted as a threat to hold an election on the bill, which is widely popular among its core francophone supporters.

Among its varied and many tasks, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be studying not merely how legal rights are acquired, but how they are lost. The Quebec legislation, whether it is passed or not, disallowed by the courts, or abandoned, will be an excellent case in point.

As in the case of Nazi Germany -- still the best example of the fragility of rights -- all it takes is the stroke of a pen and the passage of new legislation.

That's how Germany's Jews were banned from the civil service and the professions. It's how they lost the right to marry outside their religion and to attend a school of their choice.

Of course, it also required a compliant population.

Canadians cannot afford to be idle bystanders as a separatist government in Quebec begins the process of dismantling part of the country's legal and social contracts.

The time to speak out is now.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 A12

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