Indi’s MLQ v Saguenay review: Wrap-up

by | June 10, 2016

We’ve reached the end of this series on Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), so let’s look back on the main points.

State secularism

One of the key questions throughout the Saguenay case was whether Canada is a secular country, and if so, what that means.

Canada is in a strange place when it comes to whether or not it is a secular state. Unlike the US, Canada does not have an official policy of being a secular state. It is, in fact, technically a Christian nation, whose head of state was allegedly appointed by God.

On the other hand, since repatriation, we have been subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of the most important court cases in Canadian history is R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, which was the first Supreme Court case whose judgment was based on Section 2 of the Charter. This is the infamous “Lord’s Day Act” case, where a store had been charged with doing business on a Sunday, in violation of the “Lord’s Day Act”. The ruling struck down the “Lord’s Day Act”, and established that Canada is – in practice if not literally de jure – a secular country.

But while R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd established that government cannot favour or hinder religion, it did not clearly define the parameters of state secularism. Secularism was there, but you had to read carefully to see it, and it was all too easy to ignore the implications and fabricate your own understanding of what Canadian secularism should look like. This actually happened in the Court of Appeal ruling in the Saguenay case.

[Logo of the Supreme Court of Canada]

Supreme Court of Canada

In Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City) the Supreme Court was obligated to clarify Canadian secularism, even if only to explain why the Court of Appeal got it so wrong. Justice Clément Gascon took great care not to use the s-word, and instead talked about “religious neutrality”. In fact, he specifically ruled out secularism. However, what he ruled out was what he called “absolute secularism”, which was not actually secularism, but rather a virulent form of fascist anti-religious extremism that proponents often try to disguise as secularism. The reality is that the “neutrality” Justice Gascon describes is simply secularism, and that is how I will refer to it.

The state has a duty to be religiously neutral. That means that it cannot favour or hinder any religious belief or the lack of belief in religion. It also means that it must protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion, and thus cannot use its powers to promote the participation of certain believers or nonbelievers in public life.

But that’s theory. In reality “the state” can’t be religious at all, nor can it promote or hinder religion. In fact, “the state” can’t do anything at all – it’s just a legal construct, not a person; it has no will and no capability to do anything on its own. The state can only act via its agents: state officials. Thus, if we’re going to talk about what the state can or can’t do, we must talk about the actions of its officials.

So when we say that “the state” must be religiously neutral, and cannot favour or hinder any religion (or lack thereof), what we really mean is that state officials must be religiously neutral. But of course, it’s not quite that simple. State officials are still Canadians, and like all Canadians they still have Charter-guaranteed rights to freely have and practice religious beliefs. People cannot and should not have to sign away their Charter rights just to hold public office. This would seem to create a conflict.

However, it really doesn’t create a conflict. The key to understanding this lies in realizing that state officials can act in two different capacities, at different times. In each action they perform they are either acting as “the state” (or rather, as an official agent of the state) or as private individuals; never as both simultaneously. When they are acting as private individuals, they have all the same Charter rights as any other private individual. When they are acting as “the state”, they enjoy all the privileges of acting as the state, but at the same time they have only those rights and freedoms that the state has. And the state does not have a right to be religious.

This is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp, but because there are groups determined to sow confusion and misinformation, it’s worth discussing in some detail. Consider a provincial premier: When the Premier orders breakfast at Tim’s, who is ordering that breakfast: the person, or the province? The answer is pretty obvious: it’s the person ordering that breakfast. Thus, in that action (ordering breakfast), the Premier enjoys all the freedoms and rights of any Canadian. How about when the Premier makes a speech bestowing an official provincial honour on someone; who is making that speech: the person or the province? Again, the answer is obvious: it’s the province (a private citizen wouldn’t be able to make that speech, or bestow such an honour).

As you can see, this isn’t a complicated idea. But let’s try some edgier examples.

The Premier headlines an event organized by the province, and opens it with a prayer. Who is praying: the person or the province? If you answered “the person”, you’re almost certainly being deliberately dishonest. The Premier is not just “some person” who happens to be up there praying at an official provincial event. Clearly that’s the Premier of the province up there praying. Which means that ze is clearly not acting as a private person, but rather as an official of the state. And the state is not allowed to promote or favour religion. This is a violation of the state’s duty of secularism.

How about this: The Premier is Sikh, and attends gurdwara every Sunday, and often leads the ardaas prayer. Now who is praying: the person or the province? In this case, it’s pretty obviously not the province. The Premier is simply enjoying the same freedom that every Canadian has to have a religion and practise it. This freedom is not magically voided upon being elected.

Still not complicated, but let’s get even edgier.

The Premier, being a kinky sort, decides to wear a large buttplug for a parliamentary session. Who is choosing what goes in the Premier’s ass: the person or the province? Pretty obviously the person. But this isn’t a particularly controversial case because the buttplug will not be visible. So let’s try something more visible. The Premier opts to wear bright red lipstick (sometimes called “whore lipstick”) for a parliamentary session. Who is choosing what the Premier puts on her… or his… lips: the person or the province? Once again, it’s obviously not the province.

Now let’s get dangerous. The Premier, being a Sikh, opts to wear a dastar (turban) for a parliamentary session. Who is choosing to wear the dastar: the person or the province? The person, right? So there’s no problem. It’s as easy as that.

And to spell it out – necessary because there are groups determined to confuse the issue – just because you are making a decision as a private individual and thus not subject to the limitations of acting as the state, it does not follow that you are free to make any decision you please without consequences. Choosing to wear a religious garment like a dastar is never going to be an inappropriate choice in practice; except in very specialized cases where health and safety are an issue, there’s nothing wrong with a person wearing one to work. Leather bondage fetish gear is rarely going to be an appropriate choice for work, given current social mores. So the fact that a state official can choose to wear a dastar to work doesn’t mean that they could also choose to go to work in bondage gear… or in a bunny costume… or wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan on it… or straight-up naked. Yes, they have a right to make all those choices as a private individual. No, they are not free from the consequences of those choices, which may include being sent home or even charged with contempt of Parliament.

The standards of propriety for Parliament are set by the social mores. So long as their choices are within those standards, members of Parliament are grown-ups who are free to dress themselves. There is no boardroom in Canada that will refuse to allow someone entry wearing a turban… there is almost certainly no boardroom that would allow someone entry in bondage gear. You can argue that the social mores are wrong, and there is nothing untoward about being naked (or in bondage gear, or anything else like that), and I wouldn’t disagree, but they are what they are.

So just because a state official is not bound by the limitations of the state when they dress themselves, it doesn’t mean they’re not bound by anything. They are still bound by social standards. And contemporary social standards don’t consider the turban (or kippah, or hijab, or chunni) to be inappropriate professional wear.

(By contrast, a niqab or burqa is not considered appropriate professional wear in most contexts. And there are secular, practical concerns – utterly unrelated to the religiousness of the niqab or burqa – about state officials hiding their faces while doing their job. So there could be a reasonable prohibition against MPs wearing those garments.)

To put it in simple terms: Whenever a person is acting as the state, they are subject to the privileges and the restrictions that come with acting as the state. But just because someone is a state official, it does not follow that every single action they perform is an official state action. When a person – any person, state official or not – makes decisions as a private person, they are protected by the Charter, and free to enjoy all the same rights and freedoms as any private person. Taking public office does not invalidate your Charter rights.

To put it in even simpler terms: State officials cannot promote or hinder any religion or religious belief or practice, including non-religious beliefs and practices, unless there is a good secular reason for doing so (such as health or safety concerns). But state officials retain the same Charter rights and freedoms as any Canadian when they are making decisions outside of their official capacity – as private players. That means they are free to have a religion and to practice it – including wearing religious accessories like turbans and headscarves. Any actions they take as the state must be secular, but any actions they take as private players are subject only to the restrictions that apply to all private players. That includes dressing themselves, choosing what to eat, etc.; the state does not make those decisions, the person does.

Discrimination and reasonable accommodation

Alain Simoneau, the complainant in the Saguenay case, alleged that the city’s prayer discriminated against him. Did it?

In Canada, discrimination can only happen under one of the protected grounds. The protected grounds defined in the Charter are: race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (Note that the Charter specifically allows discrimination on those grounds if the goal is to ameliorate a disadvantage. For example, a government program to give grants only to visible minorities would not violate Section 15.) The Canadian Human Rights Act adds the following prohibited grounds: sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and pardoned convictions. (Some provincial human rights acts add further grounds. For example, the Ontario Human Rights Code adds gender identity and expression, ancestry, and more.) Discrimination happens whenever there is an exclusion, preference, or distinction based on one of those grounds that has the effect of nullifying or impairing a person’s rights.

There seems no doubt that being forced to sit through a prayer impairs Simoneau’s rights under the protected ground of religion (which includes freedom from religion, or freedom of conscience).

Now the Charter allows discrimination, in some cases. Section 1 allows for reasonable limits… as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. To find out whether Section 1 applies, courts use the Oakes test:

  1. There must be a pressing and substantial objective.
  2. The means must be proportional:
    1. The means must be rationally connected to the objective;
    2. there must be minimal impairment of rights; and
    3. there must be proportionality between the infringement and objective.

It is hard to imagine what the objective behind a law that enshrines a religious practice might be, beyond simply favouring that religion. And that, of course, would be a preference under a protected ground (specifically: religion). So there doesn’t seem to be any way that such a law could be acceptable as a reasonable limit to people’s rights and freedoms.

So government prayer is simply not okay, but let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s pretend that government prayer is okay – that it doesn’t fail the Oakes test. In that case, there would still be discrimination, only now it would be reasonable discrimination (by virtue of passing the Oakes test). That doesn’t mean the end of the story, though. Even if all that were true, the state would still be obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation for those who don’t want to be part of the prayer.

There is a lot of confusion about what reasonable accommodation is. It’s not just arbitrarily hand-waving away rules that others have to follow. Reasonable accommodation doesn’t even happen unless some very specific criteria have been met.

  • First, the law, rule, or practice that one is getting a reasonable accommodation for must cause discrimination. (Recall that discrimination exists whenever there is an exclusion, preference, or distinction based on one of the protected grounds that has the effect of nullifying or impairing a person’s rights.)
  • Second, the discrimination must only exist for a good reason. That is, it must satisfy the Oakes, test: there must be a pressing and substantial objective, the discrimination must be rationally connected to that objective, and whatever impairment exists must be as minimal as possible.
  • Third, the impairment caused by the discrimination must be nontrivial and substantial. You don’t get reasonable accommodation for trivial and insubstantial things.

So basically, you need a sane and secular law that nevertheless discriminates, and you need the discrimination to be nontrivial and substantial.

Only when you have all that can you even begin to discuss a reasonable accommodation for the people who are discriminated against. And, totally unlike what most people seem to think, once it has been decided that you deserve a reasonable accommodation, that doesn’t mean you simply get an exemption from the discriminatory law. Recall that the law exists for a good reason. (If it didn’t, it wouldn’t survive the Oakes test, and would be thrown out completely, so there would be no need for any accommodation.) Because the law exists for a good reason, you can’t simply go around handing out exemptions to it.

So accommodations are not exemptions. They are compromises. Both sides in the equation – the lawmakers and the discriminated persons – are expected to bend a little, to find a way that the intention of the rule can still be met while taking into account the rights of the discriminated people. Far from being an exemption, often this can leave the person receiving a reasonable accommodation with more rules and requirements than those who are simply following the original rule.

In the Saguenay case, the defendants argued that even if the prayer discriminated, and if the discrimination was nontrivial and substantial, they nevertheless provided a reasonable accommodation for those who didn’t want to take part: They could simply leave the room and return after the prayer.

Now, of course, since the prayer was not justifiable in any way, reasonable accommodation never really got serious consideration. You can’t get reasonable accommodation from an unreasonable law. Nevertheless, Justice Gascon took pains to note that the so-called “reasonable accommodation” was anything but reasonable… in fact, far from ameliorating the discrimination against those who didn’t want to take part in a prayer, it only made it much, much worse. Now people with different religious beliefs (or no religious beliefs) would have to stand up and be publicly identified by the entire audience as they left the room. Given that minority believers are already prone to victimization, this would be making it that much easier to target them.

So the city failed at just about every level in its argument. The prayer is indisputably discriminatory, it accomplishes nothing and there is no sane reason for the city to be praying at all, and the proposed accommodation of leaving the room while the prayer takes place is not reasonable.

Human rights complaints

The Canadian Human Rights Act and every provincial human rights act describes a process by which people who feel their rights have been violated can make a complaint.

Traditionally human rights complaints have been a matter for the courts. But the hard reality is: the courts have often been lousy at handling human rights complaints. Human rights is a very complex and specialized topic, and it is very, very rare to find someone who is both well-versed in human rights and a judge. And of course, requiring the courts to handle human rights cases takes up more precious legal resources, adding to the strain on our already overburdened court system.

Thus, the Canadian Human Rights Act (and all provincial human rights acts) called for the creation of administrative tribunals to handle human rights complaints: human rights tribunals. They would be staffed by specialists that know the field, and would take some of the burden off the courts. They would still be subject to judicial review, of course, so they couldn’t get out of control. All in all, a brilliant idea that has worked wonderfully.

That is, except for one small snag: the niggling question of just how much respect reviewing courts should be giving to the rulings of these administrative tribunals.

It’s a tricky problem. On the one hand, you don’t want these tribunals to have so much freedom that they effectively operate without oversight. On the other, if courts – and particularly, judges without expertise in the field – can simply shrug off their rulings, what’s the point of them?

One of the things the Supreme Court was trying to do in Saguenay was clarifying the rules for judicial review of administrative tribunals (such as human rights tribunals, as in Saguenay’s case). This was where the Court’s opinion split. The majority sided with a plan to give administrative tribunals deference right up to the point where their decisions have wide-scale impact. Justice Rosalie Abella dissented, preferring to give them deference so long as they were operating within their area of expertise.

Either way, the result is that the rulings of human rights tribunals will now have much more weight. Reviewing courts will only be allowed to verify that they’re reasonable, nothing more. This is a good thing for atheists and secularists, because while the (lower) courts have always been spotty, human rights tribunals have shown themselves to be tremendous allies of reason.


By all rights, Saguenay never should have happened, on many levels. Alain Simoneau should not have been treated like a second-class citizen by a bullying jackass Mayor, who wanted to use the city to promote his religious beliefs. Mayor Jean Tremblay’s associates should not have turned their back on their civic duty in favour of promoting their faith. The Québec Court of Appeal should not have presumptuously brushed aside the findings of the Tribunal des droits de la personne (TDP; or “Human Rights Tribunal”).

None of these things should have happened, but they did. The God-bothered kept crossing the line, over and over relentlessly, trying to use the state to force their religion on all Canadians. And in the end, it all blew up in their faces, magnificently.

[Photo of Alain Simoneau]

Alain Simoneau

First there was Alain Simoneau, just an ordinary citizen of Saguenay. He stood up to harassment, threats, and a celebrity mayor to defend his right to be treated equally. Even with the backing of Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), it wasn’t an easy task. Human rights heroes are almost never treated well by their society until long after their struggle has been won.

It took a toll on him, both financially and personally. He ultimately left Saguenay before the case was finally won in the Supreme Court. It’s not hard to understand why; Mayor Jean Tremblay was a celebrity, and he flagrantly used his power to humiliate and demonize Simoneau – even publicly identifying Simoneau to potential harassers – in a campaign that was castigated in every ruling at every level of the case.

[Photo of Michèle Pauzé]

Michèle Pauzé

Then there was Judge Michèle Pauzé, who was in charge of the TDP at the time of Simoneau’s complaint. Her job could have been done quite easily; at the time the Simoneau case was the second case in just a few years regarding government prayer. The previous case was in Laval, and Pauzé could simply have referred to that ruling and pretty much been done with it.

Instead, Pauzé took on the challenge with gusto. In many ways, her ruling is actually a more interesting read than the final Supreme Court ruling. Though it is brief and somewhat perfunctory, it nevertheless goes into great detail considering the nature of secularism, discrimination, and the specific facts of the Saguenay prayer and the shenanigans of the Mayor and his cronies. Ultimately she set up the decision in favour of secularism that – while it got brushed aside by the Québec Court of Appeal – was eventually reinstated by the Supreme Court.

[Photo of Clément Gascon]

Clément Gascon

And finally there was Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon. At the time the Sagueany case was heard, Gascon was the newest member of the Court, and Saguenay was the first case for which he wrote the majority opinion. I’ve read some critiques that call his writing pedestrian, and complaining that the ruling lacks sparklingly quotable passages, but personally I would describe his style is engineered, and and actually quite subtle.

On the surface, Gascon describes the nature of state secularism very clearly, and very simply, in terms that are hard to misunderstand (unless you’re reading it with the intention of misunderstanding). But the real genius is in what he says between the lines. Without specifically identifying what he’s talking about, some of what he says seems quite cleverly calculated to forestall future challenges to state secularism – particularly those by proponents of “Québec Charter of Values”-style religious symbol bans.

Together these three, and the rest of the TDP and the Supreme Court, gifted Canada with a wonderfully progressive ruling, simultaneously stamping down entrenched religious privilege while opening the door to more multicultural diversity in the Canadian public sphere.

8 thoughts on “Indi’s MLQ v Saguenay review: Wrap-up

  1. Shawn the Humanist

    I still want to reply to some of your comments to me from the last installment of the series. But in terms of this one, you are talking about government rules.

    Do you know how the tribunals work with workplace environments or places like wrestling associations? I once saw someone say that a voluntary association should be required to not discriminate from the outside. Thoughts?

    1. Indi Post author

      You ask tough questions. ^_^; I’ll answer in more detail on the other post where the questions are more detailed, but it will be a while before I can get to that – I’m working on another project that’s on a timetable, and it’s kinda kicking my ass a lot harder than I expected. I will get to responding, though.

      Do keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer – human rights or otherwise – and I’m not actually trained as a human rights expert. I just read a lot, and rub shoulders with people who know a lot more about it with me.

      The human rights laws are applied slightly differently, depending on whether you’re under the federal jurisdiction or provincial – and of course it varies across provinces. Each human rights act – federal, provincial – describes how and when it is applied and to what. It’s not only that the grounds for discrimination vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; there’s also variation in who it’s applied to and how. The details can get somewhat inane. For example, in Ontario it is illegal to discriminate by whether someone is on welfare or not… but *only* if you’re a landlord – otherwise you can freely refuse service to someone on welfare. And of course it usually matters whether it’s an employment situation or a non-professional association.

      So the *legal* answer is “it depends”, buy my *personal* opinion is that anti-discrimination laws (like *all* laws) should be applied as little as possible. I think the rationale for deciding when to apply it should be based on harm-reduction, not merely on context-free categorization of the situation (like employment versus voluntary association). For example, clearly anti-discrimination rules are necessary in employment – people’s lives *literally* depend on their jobs. A voluntary association on the other hand… not so much. *Usually*. But if, for example, being denied permission to join the local theatre group (which is private – just a group of people, not a business) means you won’t be able to build your acting resumé and thus make it impossible to get a real acting job… then I’d say the local theatre group should not be allowed to discriminate. (Of course, such a situation is implausible in reality – the discriminated people could just make their own group, or join the non-discriminating group in the next town. But it works for the sake of the thought experiment.)

      In Canada, human rights law takes a fair amount of context into account, which I like. That’s why these case are handled by specialized organizations – the human rights commissions and tribunals. It would take up way too much court resources to suss out all the relevant details, even if you could find a judge well-versed enough in human rights.

      As for the other question, about elected versus non-elected people… I have a bit of a pet peeve about people’s fixation on democracy and elections. I believe in that quote about democracy being the worst political system ever invented… except for every other political system. Democracy would be a *terrible* choice for a system of government, if we had any other realistic choices. And being elected no more makes a person appropriate for a job than being hit by a rock in a crowd.

      I don’t think the issue that matters here is being elected or not. I think the basically same rules that elected MLAs have to live by should apply to non-elected senators, non-elected judges, and so on. In fact, imagine a hypothetical, science-fictional situation where the members of parliament are not chosen by the population, but rather by a sophisticated computer that scans the files for every Canadian and selects the optional people… in that world, the MPs should have the same rules applied to them as the MPs in our world, no?

      No, I don’t think elected or not matters at all. I think the key factor is the person’s role. Does their role involve having the authority to act as the state? Put roughly, modulo limitations due to jurisdiction and distribution of power, is their word law?

      For the vast majority of government employees, this isn’t true. They’re just employees, nothing more. But a small, select group operates as the personification of the state. Remember Kim Davis? The Christian who refused to sign off on gay marriages? The issue in that case was that in her department, she was the state representative, and everyone else was just employees – they could fill out gay marriage certificates, but without her signature, they wouldn’t be officially endorsed by the state. In that situation, I would say that the clerks would have had the legal right to refuse to fill out gay marriage certificates (because they’re just citizens, not “the state” – though they can certainly be legally required to refer people to a clerk that *will* sign)… but Kim Davis did *not* have the legal right to refuse to sign off on them (because she *was* “the state”). She either would have had to rationalize the fact that when she was signing gay marriage certificates she was “the state” and not “just a citizen”, or she would have had to delegate the authority of the state to someone else so *they* could officially sign them. She refused to do either, so she deserved to be punished.

      And again, while I think she was elected, I don’t think that matters. Notice I didn’t even bring it up. The issue was that she was “the state” – she had the state’s authority. She did not have the right to use the state’s power (or withhold it) for her personal beliefs. While she was “the state”, she should have been secular. She could have been as Christian and as bigoted as she wanted when she wasn’t “the state”; when she was just a citizen, such as after work or on lunch breaks, or whatever.

  2. Shawn the Humanist

    On a separate issue, do you see a difference between elected official and civil servants employed by the government?

  3. Brad Bowyer

    Just a note to say I appreciated your posts. Read them all, and have been looking for a summary of this info for a while. The definition of secular vs laicite was particularly interesting. I’ve followed the friendly athiest for a while,and was very glad to learn of your blog from a post made there. Tks from YYC.

  4. Tim Underwood

    “The state has a duty to be religiously neutral. This means that it cannot favour or hinder any religious belief or the lack of belief in religion.”

    Religious teachings are wrong about history, ethics, cosmology, biology: and all the while, the state is powerless to challenge this willful spreading of rubbish.

    The public education system cannot challenge religious teachings that are demonstrably invalid. Something should change. Religious assertions, that are clearly invalid, should be challenged by government and by educators. This has to be differentiated from proselytizing. Maybe we have to get rid of this word ‘proselytizing’ and go back to the old term for it, which is ‘lying’. Spreading religious truth is no different than plain old spreading religious lies. Truth telling is not proselytizing it philosophizing.

    1. Indi Post author

      > … all the while, the state is powerless to challenge this willful spreading of rubbish.
      > The public education system cannot challenge religious teachings that are demonstrably invalid. …

      That’s ridiculous. Of *course* the state has the power to challenge bullshit. The state funds piles of scientific research, and why on Earth would you think the public school system is powerless to fight ignorance? That’s the craziest thing I’ve heard in a long time. What do you think they do in school all day?

      They can totally counter religious bullshit; they just can’t do it without a legitimate, secular reason. They have no legitimate, secular reason to argue against the existence of angels… but they have plenty of reason to argue against the Earth being 6,000 years old, or disease being caused by demons, or people of a certain, race, gender, sex, or sexual orientation being the spawn of Satan.

  5. Tim Underwood

    The Catholic church sponsors exorcism interventions. This “casting out of demons” is often connected with people, who are later diagnosed with schizophrenia, after they have been arrested for committing atrocities. This is clearly a serious mental health issue.

    The casting out of demons is one of the great powers that the Gospel character,Jesus Christ, bestowed on his followers after bestowing on them the ‘Great Commission’.

    This is serious bullshit and dangerous bullshit. As you point out, this falls into the category of angel assertion. The state is powerless, by abdication, to terminate this public safety practice.


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