Parti Quebecois religion plan gets support from retired Supreme Court judge

MONTREAL – A former Supreme Court judge has joined a movement supporting the Parti Quebecois’ controversial charter of values.

A pro-secularism group says its 60 members include retired justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube.

Some members of the Rassemblement pour la laicite held a news conference Tuesday, without the ex-judge present, to explain their support for the PQ plan to restrict religious headwear in the public service.

Although several polls suggest the plan has considerable support in Quebec, there has been vigorous opposition and many prominent Quebecers have spoken out against it.

The pro-charter side is pushing back. The group’s supporters include L’Heureux-Dube, former student strike leader Martine Desjardins, union leaders, and members of minority communities who oppose religious accommodation.

Leila Bensalem, an Algerian-born teacher at a multiethnic school in Montreal, applauded the PQ initiative. She said the list of demands for religious accommodation at school is growing, from halal food to separate gym classes for boys and girls.

“We are literally bombarded, day after day and week after week, by demands for reasonable accommodations,” she said Tuesday.

“We’ve been asking ourselves for years, ‘When will someone finally stand up and put an end to these hot potatoes in schools?’ ”

She said religious clothing is the first way fundamentalists begin to exert their influence.

“That veil is an ideology… The fundamentalists, when they establish an Islamic republic, the first thing they ask from Muslim women is to wear the veil,” Bensalem said.

“It’s like the flag they want their women to wear. They represent fundamentalism… Even if they say, and they keep saying, ‘It’s my choice,’ they forget to say this is the only choice they have.”

L’Heureux-Dube was not at Tuesday’s event. However, in an interview this year with Radio-Canada, she expressed concern about women covering their faces.

The judge also argued that while certain rights are fundamental, like the right to life and equality, other civil liberties “can be reduced” in a “free and democratic society.”

L’Heureux-Dube, 86, was appointed to the Supreme Court by ex-prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1987. She was the second woman ever named to the high court and she served until 2002.

The question of whether the PQ plan would ever pass the constitutional test has been a matter of some contention.

The PQ says its plan was studied, and endorsed, by provincial Justice Department analysts, although there have been reports that the government ignored legal advice it didn’t like.

The government is also under pressure to show any feasibility studies for its plan — such as the scope of the problem it’s supposed to be responding to, and what the impact would be on people and institutions.

The PQ says it plans to introduce its legislation in the fall. Since the current plan has insufficient support from the legislature’s other parties, the PQ could either water it down or use the issue in an election.

Attempts to reach L’Heureux-Dube this week were unsuccessful, and the Rassemblement pour la laicite said she was travelling outside the country.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.