Quebec’s Bill 21: Secularism and Antagonism
The 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 the 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 CAQ’s 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 Coalition Avenir Quebec 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 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.
On March 28, the Quebec government tabled Bill 21, titled “An Act respecting the laicity of the State. The word “laicity” — is the translation of laïcité, a term entrenched in the French Revolution, and is France’s principle of secularism in public affairs, directed at cultivating a post-religious society. It developed during the French Revolution, which sought to dismantle the Catholic Church in France along with the monarchy, and was enshrined in the 1905 law on the Separation of Church and State. France’s brand of secularism is quite particular and controversial.
Of particular note is the fact that the term “laicity” is used 18 times in Bill 21, while “secularism”, the frequent English translation, is not used once. This is a major subtlety that most Anglophones miss, and perhaps to their detriment.
Legislative intent behind the choice of words used makes all the difference. It is blatantly apparent that while laïcité (or laicity) is a firmly established term in Quebec’s self-understanding, there is still a range of ideas about what it means, and as a consequence dire vigilance is of the utmost importance.
Preamble to Bill 21
Of greater concern or importance is the preamble or preface to Bill 21, which explains
the CAQ government’s motivation. The Quebec nation, it says, “has its own characteristics, one of which is its civil law tradition, distinct social values and a specific history that [has] led it to develop a particular attachment to state laicity.”
It says secularity should be “affirmed in a manner that ensures a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and human rights and freedoms. The preamble also notes that Quebec “attaches importance to the equality of women and men” — an apparent reference to the concern expressed by some people that the hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, and the niqab, a Muslim veil, are symbols of female inferiority. 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.
Let 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.
At this rate, even Indigenous spiritual symbols can be regulated. Inclusion of the notwithstanding clause blocks citizens from challenging Bill 21, 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.
The president of the Quebec Lawyer’s 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”. Politicians in Montreal’s west end at the federal, provincial and municipal levels came together to speak out against the ban.
According to Premier Francois Legault the Bill is “moderate” and a “compromise.” He has argued 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 repeatedly debated 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 François 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? Will 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.