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Quebec’s Bill 21: More Secularism And Antagonism

On March 28, 2019, Premier Francois Legault's Quebec government tabled a polarizing bill that would see religious symbols disappear, in most of the public sector. Photo credit: Jimmy Hamelin - Coalition pour l'avenir du Québec, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17297839

Quebec’s Bill 21: More Secularism And Antagonism

By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator

Yvonne Sam -- newThe leader of the American civil rights movement and Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr, once said: “Nothing in the entire world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Currently Quebec is lending truth to Dr. King’s statement, as the government and the people become enmeshed in the “brouhaha” surrounding religious symbols. The act, and its accompanying fact, were clearly spelt out in the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s (CAQ) campaign promises. Now everyone is beginning to shout as the Premier shows what he is all about. First the say and now the play.

On October 1, 2018, the CAQ, under the leadership of Francois Legault, was swept into power with a majority government, due in large part, to strong support from the predominantly francophone regions of Quebec and a Liberal base that stayed home. New records were set for the lowest share of the vote, ever registered by, either the Liberals or the Parti Québécois.

During a news conference, on October 2, 2018, the day after the momentous victory, the new Premier lost no time in laying out his priorities for the province, and for Canada as a whole. Among the priorities, which he said he would implement within his first year in office, was the intended passage of a secularism charter, one that would extend further than the religious neutrality law of the Liberals, parts of which are subject to constitutional objection.

Suffice it to say that one of the key traits of Quebec’s secularism is that it has defined itself, implicitly. The CAQ resists the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab, by police officers and others, who wield coercive state power. The party would also ban school teachers from wearing religious symbols.

The Premier also stated his preparedness, to invoke the notwithstanding clause, to enforce a ban on any public employee from wearing a religious symbol, such as a hijab or kippa in the workplace.

Commentary LogoLet us step down a familiar already-trodden path. In 2008, Quebec’s landmark report on accommodation and religious minorities — The Bouchard-Taylor Commission — recommended that all public officials, who epitomize the authority and neutrality of the state and its institutions, such as judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and the president and vice-president of the National Assembly of Québec, be prohibited from wearing any visible religious symbols, such as the hijab, turbans, yarmulkes and the crucifix. www.mce.gouv.qc.ca/publications/CCPARDC/rapport-final-integral-en.pdf.

On March 28, 2019, the Quebec government tabled a polarizing bill that would see religious symbols disappear, in most of the public sector. Bill 21 also doubles down on pre-existing legislation that requires citizens to uncover their faces, when accessing public services, like municipal transit and the legal system.

Since its tabling, the projected bill has been met with controversy and confusion, with constitutional experts suggesting avenues for challenge. Additionally, it has been condemned, by critics, as legalizing discrimination against religious minorities, and by proponents, as Quebec finally making good on its claims of being a secular society.

Inclusion of the notwithstanding clause, blocks citizens from challenging the bill, over violations of fundamental rights protected by the federal and provincial charters. However, legal experts contend that even in the face of the notwithstanding clause, Quebec’s secularism bill is likely to face challenges. www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/11454

The president of the Quebec division of the Canadian Bar Association, Audrey Boctor, has called on the provincial government to remove the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause from Bill 21, and let the courts do their job.

“If the government is convinced its law is constitutional, then it should allow the court process to run its course,” she said.

Politicians in Montreal’s west end, at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, came together to speak out against the ban.

According to Premier Legault, the bill is “moderate” and a “compromise”. He has argued that his government invoked the clause, to avoid legal challenges that would cause lengthy delays in the law’s implementation and, unhesitatingly, repudiates the notion that Quebecers need more information to make an informed decision.

Legault is also making a concession to longstanding accusations of hypocrisy, regarding Quebec’s tolerance of Christian symbolism above others, by removing the crucifix from the National Assembly, a fixture that has hung above the Speaker’s chair, since 1936. 103 MNAs voted in favour of the motion to remove the crucifix. There were no abstentions.

The Premier believes the removal signifies a “compromise” to Quebecers and will help unite them over Bill 21. Legault also noted that his government included a grandfather clause that would exempt current employees from the restrictions, as long as they remain in the same job.

So here goes Quebec, once again. Quo Vadis? As a province, Quebec has an unexampled relationship to secularism that dates back to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebecers rejected the powerful grip of the Catholic Church.

The idea of legislating religious neutrality and providing a framework for requests, for accommodation on religious grounds, has been debated, repeatedly, in Quebec’s legislature.

Bill 62, a similar legislation, was proposed by the Quebec Liberal Party. In October 2017, it briefly went into effect, before being stopped by an injunction, from Superior Court judge, Marc-André Blanchard, who claimed that “irreparable harm [would] be caused to Muslim women”, if it continued.

This current political tsunami, covered by a hijab, is yet another example of Quebec forcefully antisepticising discrimination against its own people. Francophones against Anglophones, federalists against sovereignists, and laypeople against religious immigrants. According to Premier Legault, observant Sikhs, Jews and Muslims should look for another line of employment. There is no record, worldwide, of an elected leader telling constituents to seek alternative employment, on account of their religious beliefs.

While the storm rages, the tension mounts and the vitriol is spewed, let us all analyze the age old adage: “today for you, tomorrow for me”. Today it is the civil servants and employees, in positions of authority. Who will it be tomorrow? Would the private sector follow the government’s lead?

For the greater part of two decades an emotional debate has raged in Quebec, about the compatibility of religious symbols with the province’s modern secular identity. Will there be any further intrusion on religious freedoms, as Quebec continues to fight its old battles, forever apprehensive of the future?

The CAQ has become the fourth consecutive government to draft comprehensive legislation, attempting to regulate what accommodations should be made for religious minorities. Will this time be different? Will the fourth time be a charm, or just cause more political and religious harm?

Aleuta — the struggle continues.

Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.


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