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Caroline Elliott: Quebec’s Bill 21 forgets the ‘liberal’ in liberal democracy

Commentary


Many contentious political issues have moral grey areas, but Quebec’s Bill 21 is just plain wrong. And while a lack of leadership at the federal level is a result of blatant political pandering to that vote-rich region, sometimes principles ought to come first.

Bill 21 has been defended in a number of ways, but a closer look reveals that none of these arguments hold water. Even worse, the bill represents the darkest side of democracy, something philosophers of all stripes have warned about for centuries.  

The legislation, which was enacted in 2019, prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by certain members of Quebec’s public service, such as police officers and teachers. It is in the spotlight again after a recent hate-filled attack that killed multiple members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.

It’s clear that this legislation is illiberal, pure and simple. It doesn’t just undermine religious freedoms but runs counter to the liberal democratic foundations of our society.

Quebec’s Premier François Legault has claimed that Bill 21 is vital to maintaining a secular province, drawing a false linkage between the worthy notion of separation of religion and state and the heavy-handed interference of the state in religious freedom. These are demonstrably different things and no serious person would conflate the two.

Defenders of the bill say it is not racist, since it applies to all religions equally. But what it means in practice is that the religious freedoms of certain cultural and racial groups are disproportionately impacted, such as Sikhs who wear turbans or Muslims who wear hijabs.

Others have suggested that Bill 21 “protects” women against what they see as religious oppression. But banning a woman’s right to wear a niqab, for example, is a very different thing than the very valid insistence on her right not to wear it. The latter argument is consistent with liberalism because it protects that woman’s rights, while the former argument is illiberal because it takes that woman’s rights away.

Perhaps most commonly, some defend the legislation based on the idea that it was passed democratically. However, this argument forgets the “liberal” in “liberal democracy.” For hundreds of years, political thinkers from Edmund Burke to Alexis de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill have cautioned against the impacts of unchecked majoritarian decision-making on individual freedoms.

The danger presented by the “tyranny of the majority” is why the United States has its Bill of Rights and we in Canada have our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These tools are in place specifically to protect the liberal component of liberal democracy. Those who use solely majoritarian decision-making processes to defend illiberal initiatives are treading on thin philosophical ice.

The second we start enabling governments to regulate acceptable religious attire, the whole exercise of the basic principle of religious freedom becomes subjective.

Quebec citizens and federal leaders of all parties ought to consider Edmund Burke’s commentary on the perils of unchecked democracy. As he put it, “in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority … and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre.”

With this in mind, cultural and religious minorities are not the only ones who should be worried about this legislation. Anyone who believes in liberal democracy ought to vigorously oppose it, too.

I recently wrote a column about free speech in which I argued that the second we start drawing lines around acceptable thought, the whole exercise of free expression is at risk. I argued that in the absence of objective delineation between “good” and “bad” opinions, all we can rely on are subjective judgments.

The same argument applies to religious freedom. The second we start enabling governments to regulate acceptable religious attire, the whole exercise of the basic principle of religious freedom becomes subjective. Of course, as in the case of free speech, certain limits are acceptable. But any restrictions should be carefully considered and imposed only when necessary to protect liberal democratic values, not to weaken them. 

In that same column, I wrote that true freedom of speech means we all need to get comfortable defending the expression of the very perspectives that make us most uncomfortable.

Again, the same argument can be made in the case of religious freedom. For example, some may feel very uncomfortable defending a teacher’s right to wear a niqab, but they need to consider the idea that the very same arguments they make against that woman’s religious choices could be made about their own religious choices in the future.

This isn’t just an issue of legitimized racism, nor is it merely a threat to religious freedom. It is an example of the worst of democracy, the manifestation of what philosophers from very different perspectives agree is one of its greatest flaws.

When leaders find reasons to take the “liberal” out of “liberal democracy,’ we should see it as the grave threat to freedom that it really is, no matter how they justify it.  

Harry Rakowski: Long-haul COVID-19 is another pressing reason to get vaccinated

Commentary

Our initial fear of COVID-19 infection was of becoming seriously ill, ending up in hospital and possibly even dying. Through each of the three waves of infection, the pressure of infected patients filling hospitals and scarce ICU beds led to a marked reduction in non-emergency care even for serious need.

As infection rates drop dramatically more than 70 percent of Canadians over age 12 receiving at least one jab and nearly 20 percent being fully vaccinated to date what do we still have to worry about?

The Delta variant, recognized in India, appears to be more resistant to a single vaccination dose. That means it is essential that high risk people — those over 60 or with obesity, diabetes and immune-compromised conditions — receive priority for second shots. They also need to be encouraged to do so through ease of bookings and increased efforts to overcome any residual vaccine hesitancy.

Getting a second shot for as many people as possible remains essential to keeping case rates and hospitalizations low. In order to achieve relative herd immunity we hope that over 80 percent of people eligible for vaccination will be fully covered by the end of summer. Canada has a very large vaccine supply coming in the next two months making timely second shots readily available.

The burden of getting COVID-19 goes beyond the initial effects of infection. We now know that there can be very significant long term effects that can persist for months or longer. The syndrome is know as “long COVID“ or “long-haul COVID.”

COVID-19 infection can involve multiple organ systems including the lungs, heart, brain and kidneys. This is a result both of direct infection and a potential over-reaction of the body’s natural immune response. While most people who are infected resolve symptoms within 2 weeks, there is a growing body of scientific literature that characterizes the nature and duration of persisting symptoms.

The diagram below from emergency-live.com highlights the organ systems that COVID-19 infection targets with potential long-lasting impact. Possible mechanisms include prolonged inflammatory response, nerve damage, retained viral load and blood clotting problems. There is also a major psychological effect to being severely ill with potential long term mental health consequences.

The lungs are a prime target of infection. While COVID pneumonia generally clears early, a small number of patients may have lingering scarring that may be permanent and can reduce lung function with persisting shortness of breath. Others may have blood clots leading to strokes, kidney damage or small blood vessel blockage and lingering disability as a result.

A large United States Department of Veterans Affairs study showed a 60 percent increase in all cause mortality within six months of infection especially if hospitalization was necessary.

In a Swedish study of infected health care professionals, 80 percent of hospitalized patients experienced moderate to severe symptoms for many months after initial infection and 10 percent of all those infected, but not hospitalized, experienced one or more moderate to severe symptoms affecting quality of life for more than six months.

A common specific symptom of infection is loss of smell and taste. While not life-threatening, it is very challenging to many and may greatly affect quality of life. The virus does not appear to directly damage the nerve cells that allow us to smell and taste but rather their supporting cells. While these sensory losses may persist for two months after infection in about 25 percent of affected people and in 15 percent beyond eight months, function will ultimately recover in most people.

The virus also affects brain function, perhaps by causing an inflammatory reaction. This can result in persisting brain fog with difficulty concentrating and memory impairment, as well as anxiety and depression.

Chronic fatigue is a known major complication of some viral infections especially mononucleosis and is a significant long-COVID symptom as well. Many patients describe a persisting inability to work or function at a high level.

Vaccine hesitancy has been increased by the belief that healthy people who get infected will only feel like they got the flu. However, it is important to remember that even those with mild symptoms may develop long-haul COVID symptoms, which can be debilitating.

It is estimated that about 20 million people worldwide will develop long-haul COVID symptoms. We don’t yet know who is most at risk other than by the severity of infection. Unfortunately there is no effective treatment to date.

Physicians and patients need to respect that unusual and persisting symptoms after infection are real even when conventional testing fails to reveal blood or imaging abnormalities.

If you are young and healthy and, as a result, vaccine hesitant, preventing long-haul COVID is another good reason to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.