Thinly-Veiled Discrimination or Progressive Secularism? A Perspective from Quebec

Thinly-Veiled Discrimination or Progressive Secularism? A Perspective from Quebec

. 7 min read

Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. The unalienable human rights as outlined in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. The Canadian equivalent is found in Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, titled the Fundamental Freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association. The first of the Freedoms, that of conscience and religion, has been fiercely debated in the context of the Quebec National Assembly’s Bill 21, which bans the wearing of visible religious symbols for public servants. This entails serious repercussions for the many ethnic and religious minorities that reside in Quebec, crippling their ability to participate as full members in their religious and cultural groups as well as in society at large. In particular danger are the many Muslim women in Quebec who wear the hijab or other head coverings and are being asked by the government to forgo their religious garb if working in the public sector.

Bill 21 impedes upon the rights of individuals of various religious denominations to practice their religion without interference from the government. This would under normal circumstances be ruled unconstitutional, but the provincial legislature’s invocation of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows them to circumvent the question of constitutionality altogether. This particularity is known as the Notwithstanding Clause, which allows provincial legislatures to pass laws which contradict provisions laid out in Section 2 and 7 through 15 of the Charter. Such laws are constrained by a sunset clause, which prohibits the enforcement of said law for more than five years. However, there is no limit on how many times the law can be reintroduced and passed, so the Quebec National Assembly could theoretically renew Bill 21 indefinitely. The irony of the Quebec National Assembly’s invocation of the Notwithstanding Clause is that Quebec is the only province that has not yet ratified the current Canadian Constitution because they were excluded from the last-minute negotiations that created the Notwithstanding Clause, but have since been one of only three provinces (out of ten) to adopt the clause.

Applications To Everyday Life

Legal technicalities aside, what does Bill 21 look like to the average Quebec resident? For some, Bill 21 represents a continuation of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, a progressive movement that saw the separation of Church and State in Quebec, finally bringing the province into the modern age. For many others, Bill 21 is flagrantly racist and discriminatory, using state secularism as a front to pursue a targeted attack against ethnic minorities that are already disadvantaged in Quebec society. The people who will be most negatively impacted by Bill 21 are Muslim women who wear the hijab or other head coverings, Sikhs who wear turbans, and Jews who wear the kippah. Adherence to these faiths necessitates the wearing of the prescribed religious garb in public at all times, and demanding that individuals remove their religious symbols while at work is akin to demanding that they violate their beliefs. Conspicuously absent from the group of affected people are Christians, who make up the dominant faith in Quebec, and for the majority of whom the wearing of religious symbols is optional.

The rule banning religious symbols is currently formulated to apply to civil servants in “positions of authority,” such as teachers, police officers, and judges. Certain school districts are already seeing prospective teachers withdraw their applications due to the enforcement of Bill 21, worsening an ongoing shortage of teachers. Many students on the cusp of completing their training to become teachers or police officers have had to reconsider their career paths and make the difficult choice between career or religious and cultural values, an impossible decision unjustly pushed upon a few select groups in Quebec’s society.

How Did We Get Here?

Much of the rhetoric supporting the implementation of Bill 21 has its roots in the importance of promoting state secularism within Québécois culture. In a nation formed predominantly by French Canadians, the Catholic Church held much sway over society until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. This influence, such as the Catholic Church’s control over public education, manifested in the continued privileging of conservative religious values at a time when much of the country had begun to move forward, especially with regard to the role and rights of women in society. The growing secularization of public spaces, such as using secular administrators for public schools, was a crucial step in Quebec’s transition into the modern era. However, analogizing Bill 21’s restrictions on religious activity and the Quiet Revolution is questionable.

When the Catholic Church was in charge of the public school board, there was a clear affiliation between religion and education, as the Church was clearly the administrator. The academic curriculum was directly prescribed by the Church and devised to comply with Catholic teachings. This was clearly a case of a religious authorities given the power to indoctrinate children on a widespread scale, an invasion of the public sphere that was justified in its removal according to modern political standards. However, the same reasoning does not apply in the current practices that Bill 21 seeks to restrict. Public school teachers, whether they wear religious symbols or not, are paid by the government to teach the provincially-mandated curriculum, which is decided by the Ministry of Education and is no longer affiliated with any religious institution. Just as the individuals who work at the ministry and decide what gets taught are not accused of imbuing their work with religious values even if they happen to be religious, teachers who are employed by the government do not deserve blanket accusations of proselytizing their students just by wearing personal religious symbols. Only in cases where teachers were found to be actively promoting a particular religion or its practices in class should an issue arise, but this does not appear to be a prevalent problem in Quebec. Many agree with this conclusion, stating that Bill 21 is seeking to legislate a problem that does not exist. Adhering to private religious beliefs in a publicly visible manner does not equate a public imposition of those beliefs on others, and the Catholic Church analogy only serves to cover up  an unwarranted overreach of state power.

Religious Discrimination

The most prominent argument against Bill 21 is that it is discrimination on the basis of religion. Under this law, people’s religious convictions can now be used against them and bar them from participating as full members of society. A poll commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies and cited in the Montreal Gazette newspaper revealed that Islamophobia appears to be the main driving force behind the passing of this law. This is in line with a general trend of anti-Muslim sentiment that has been on the rise in Quebec. Similar legislation was debated in the National Assembly back in 2013 when the Bloc Québécois presented the Quebec Charter of Values, but they were voted out of office before they could pass the controversial bill. When the relatively conservative and fiercely sovereigntist Bloc Québécois were replaced by the Liberal Party of Quebec, it appeared as if a dark and divisive period in Quebec politics had come to an end. However, with the return of conservative interests in power under the Coalition Avenir Québec, Quebec society has launched headfirst into the same heated dispute all over again.

Marginalized religious and ethnic groups are being singled out and asked to separate their private selves from their public selves, imposing a cleavage of personal identity that is neither feasible nor reasonable for a democratic government to demand of its people. Even if it were possible for human beings to neatly compartmentalize different aspects of themselves and only display whatever components were deemed socially appropriate and convenient, to ask people to comply with this kind of self-censoring behavior at best tests the limits of reason. Legitimizing the forced stripping away parts of these individuals’ identities facilitates the creation of second-class citizens who are given fewer opportunities than those around them, leaving them more at risk of suffering mistreatment and exploitation. Moreover, arguments made in support of Bill 21 because of its secularizing intent conveniently forget that the goal of state secularism is to protect freedom of conscience and religion for all citizens and not privilege one religion over any other, which is the exact opposite of what this law actually accomplishes.

Feminist Perspectives

Due to the significant number of Muslim women whose employment prospects have been constrained by Bill 21, a number of feminists have advocated both for and against the controversial law. Some feminists, both within and without the Muslim community, view wearing the hijab or other headgear as a sign of submission  unrelated to any true practice of faith, and reject any possibility of its  place in a modern world of gender equality. Furthermore, the actual practice of wearing a hijab, niqab, or burqa can be very impractical or even dangerous, proving to be a safety hazard in some work environments. However, many of the jobs that are impacted by the religious symbol ban, such as Crown prosecutors, judges, and public school teachers, lack the work hazard and safety considerations that come with careers in construction or industrial settings, which are not covered by Bill 21.

On the other side are the many women who actively choose to wear headgear as a sign of their commitment to their faith. This becomes an important symbol of their convictions intertwined with their identity, and asking them to leave their faith outside of the workplace effectively asks them to disassociate from themselves. n many cases these religious symbols also have important cultural value, and forcing women to abandon these cultural markers may ostracize them from their communities and further isolate them in an increasingly hostile society. If we consider the perspective that symbols like the hijab are inherently oppressive because women in some places have been forced to wear them, Quebec’s decision to force women not to wear them is equally oppressive. At the end of the day, women in either scenario are deprived of the agency to make their own choices and are denied the crucial capacity of self-determination central to identity. Finally, in the case where a woman is truly being subjugated and forced to wear a religious symbol, Bill 21 is more likely to just deprive her of a job and limit her employment opportunities than suddenly free her of coercive influences, forcing her continued economic dependency on others and removing any opportunities for emancipation.

Quebec has, from the very beginning of Confederation, held a unique position in Canada, and Bill 21 is far from the first time that the province has sought to affirm its distinct French-Canadian cultural identity. An earlier example of this protectionist attitude was the passing of Bill 101 in 1977, which provided significant protections for the French language. The pertinent difference between Bill 101 and Bill 21 is that rather than encouraging the productive integration of minority populations into Quebec society through the adoption of a common language, Bill 21 actively seeks to exclude these already disadvantaged groups from participation as full members of society. Muslim women are particularly at risk of increased social isolation and limited economic opportunities, though some believe that banning religious headgear for Muslim women is a necessary step to achieve gender equality. The justification of  state secularism only serves to obscure the crude reality of Bill 21: that it forcefully imposes the will of the majority over the minority in a manner that violates their fundamental rights as Canadian citizens, an outcome which contravenes the very point of having a constitution in the first place.