By Doug Sweet
It would be impossible to apply the Quebec government’s proposed ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by public employees in a university milieu, McGill says in its brief to the National Assembly commission studying Bill 60, also known as the proposed Charter of Values.
And if the legislation were to become law, it would hamper the University’s ability to attract top talent from abroad because it would send a powerful signal that Quebec is not an open and welcoming society, the brief says.
“For decades, McGill has made every effort to promote the integration of all cultures into our community,” the brief states. “The university believes that this is what makes it especially interesting to the students and professors it attracts and retains in Quebec. Our students are our raison d’être. They are adults. They expect the University to give them access not only to courses and subject matter, but also to an environment that brings them face to face with a reality that goes beyond the experience they have had until now, and helps them to develop their judgment and critical thinking. University is the first real experience many students have of openness to the world.”
Following in the footsteps of unanimous and identical motions passed by both the Senate and Board of Governors last year, as well as objections raised by student groups such as SSMU and PGSS and the McGill Association of University Teachers, McGill’s brief acknowledges that the University supports the notion of religious neutrality on the part of the State and the equality of men and women. But the controversial ban on the wearing of such religious symbols as a turban, kippah or hijab goes too far and is an unjustified attack on fundamental rights, the brief says.
McGill believes Bill 60, as currently written, would trample on the institutional autonomy of universities, something that is clearly recognized under international conventions and considered a guarantor of academic freedom.
“Universities are not – any more than their professors or employees – agents of the state,” the McGill brief says. “To treat them as such would be tantamount to denying the institutional autonomy universities must enjoy, and which is the cornerstone of academic freedom. In the case of universities with a strong international character, like McGill, this would further harm their ability to attract and retain talent.
“The institutional autonomy of a university is defined as the ability to manage its mission according to its own rules of governance, in complete freedom and without interference from any third party, including the government. Of course, the university must be accountable at the administrative level, in particular for the use it makes of public funding, but it remains free to set its own objectives and determine the resources it will mobilize to achieve those objectives. It is clear that the management of personnel and rules that apply to professors and support staff are primarily up to the university.”
McGill is awaiting the date at which members of the senior administration will present the brief to the National Assembly commission studying the proposed bill in Quebec City. More than 200 hours of hearings have been scheduled as the commission hears from various groups and individuals, including many of the province’s universities.
“McGill’s community has been very clear in expressing opposition to parts of this proposed legislation,” said Olivier Marcil, Vice-Principal (Communications and External Relations). “The plan to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is clearly a non-starter as far as McGill is concerned.”
Marcil noted that, as the McGill brief outlines, Bill 60 could lead to the absurd situation where a student working as a teaching or research assistant would be forbidden from wearing a hijab or kippah while working alongside students who would be allowed to wear those articles of clothing.
“It think it is quite fitting for McGill to take this opportunity to stand up for fundamental human rights,” Marcil said.
The brief raises questions about whether the government’s Bill would run afoul of both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.
“We will leave it to jurists to comment on this aspect with greater authority, but we note that many credible individuals and agencies, including the Quebec Human Rights Commission, have expressed strong reservations in that regard. It is up to the government to demonstrate that the bill ‘passes the test’ of the charters so as not to lead Quebec society into a never-ending series of legal disputes. The government must demonstrate that any restriction of individual freedoms is required by a situation of serious social order that is clearly documented and recognized,” the brief says.
To read McGill’s brief in its entirety, click here.