March 12, 2010
Thanks to Immigration Minister Yolande James, we now have a clearer idea of what constitutes those "Quebec values" to which we all - immigrant and native-born alike - are supposed to adhere.
And it turns out that personal liberty, freedom of religion, and a willingness to embrace the French language do not enjoy the primacy of place we might have expected. A bare face apparently trumps all those desirable values. If you want to go to "our" schools to learn French, James told immigrant women, show us your faces.
The first victim of this fiat, of course, was Naema Ahmed, the Egyptian-born pharmacist whose wardrobe choice had already led to her eviction from one publicly-funded French course. On Tuesday she was thrown out of a second, in the middle of an exam yet, for the same offence - wearing a niqab. Your face or your faith, she was told. She chose her faith.
More ominously, James also revealed this week that her bureaucrats are busily preparing new rules on what we're allowed to wear when we seek to use the public services our taxes fund. That's just what Quebec needs in these troubled times: a dress code. Will we also have Values Police, modelled on the Tongue Troopers, to enforce the new rules?
So far, we have no idea what these bureaucratic dictates will entail, or what services will be affected, but the Liberal government's past eagerness to sacrifice liberty on the altar of social peace gives cause for concern. If the outcry about Muslim women's clothing choices is loud enough, the government could well scrap the nuanced recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation, in favour of more popular and more aggressive measures.
James's record also gives cause for concern. Early in her tenure she suggested banishing new arrivals to outposts like Abitibi, where they could learn to integrate into Quebec society by performing "quasi-mandatory" public service. That idea never went anywhere, but it showed a disturbing authoritarian tendency.
Compared with that, state-imposed values and clothing rules seem almost benign. But they're not, and they have no place in a democratic society. Dress codes for women are something we associate with medieval kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, and throwing women out of school because their behaviour violates fuzzy societal values sounds like something that happens in the wilder reaches of Kandahar.
It's true that the sight of a woman in a niqab can be startling to Western eyes, even offensive. But that's no reason to ban the garments - or the women. Some people feel the same way about strip shows, sex shops, and the jiggling flesh on display on Ste. Catherine St. on any summer day.
Running the risk of being offended is the price we pay for living in a free and open society. The real test of a nation's tolerance is its ability to tolerate the offensive.