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Jeopardized Identity: State Sanctioned Inequality Measures in Québec

By Hayley Dick

March 15 2024

Global Rights Defenders



In June of 2019, dozens of people protested outside of Québec’s National Assembly against the Coalition Avenir Québec’s (CAQ) proposed ban on religious symbols for public sector workers.[i] This legislation, known as Québec’s new secularism bill or Bill 21, prohibits public sector workers, including lawyers, teachers, police officers and others, from wearing religious symbols including the Sikh dastar, Muslim hijab, and the Jewish kippah. Civil liberties advocates argue that the Bill disproportionately targets Muslim women and perpetuates state-sanctioned Islamophobia.[ii]

            In response to the new legislation, protests erupted across Canada, contending that the law directly infringes upon citizens’ religious freedoms and freedom of expression, particularly impacting female racialized minorities.[iii] For many, removing their religious symbols in public spaces contradicts their faith, forcing them to choose between their employment and their identity. Such legislation violates human rights and further marginalizes individuals in Québec.

 

Québec’s Justification for Bill 21

            The rationale behind Bill 21 stems from the Québec government’s assertion that it would enhance the religious neutrality of the state, separate church and state, uphold freedom of conscience and religion, and ultimately ensure “equality” for all citizens. Premier Legault stated that the objective of the Bill was to unite the people of Québec. Despite criticisms likening Bill 21 to racism, the Premier emphasized that secularism should not be equated with racism, stating, “For me, secularism is not racism… We cannot mix Bill 21 in fighting against racism. Bill 21 is about secularism. And it’s good for everyone in the world, regardless of the colour of people.”[iv] Furthermore, the provincial government’s implementation of the Bill has been supported by some feminist organizations that believe that the veil worn by Muslim women is a symbol of an oppressive patriarchy.[v] However, the determination of whether the veil is oppressive should not be left to the government but should instead be determined by the individual.

            Bill 21 is not an isolated piece of legislation but rather part of a historical pattern in Québec’s approach to secularism and its prioritization of French identity and culture. There have been growing concerns since the 1970s, when Canada passed its multicultural policy, that the increasing number of immigrants coming into the province threatened French identity.[vi] The Québec government has promoted “interculturalism” as an approach to diversity, which prioritizes French identity and culture above all else. Fear of losing French identity is at the centre of discriminatory legislation that has been enacted in Québec in the last four decades, and political actors continue to exploit these growing concerns.[vii] However, such legislation violates fundamental rights in the Charter and intensifies racism and discrimination toward religious minorities.

 

Legal Battles and the Societal Impact

            Throughout its existence, the so-called “religious neutrality” legislation has faced legal challenges in the Québec Superior Court by civil liberty groups, who presented evidence highlighting its disproportionate impact on Muslim women wearing hijabs. These groups argue that Bill 21 exacerbates Islamophobia and effectively relegates Sikhs, Jews, and Muslims to second-class citizen status. Unfortunately, the Superior Court upheld the Bill in 2019.[viii]

Subsequently, civil liberty groups involved took the Bill to the Appeal Court in December of 2019. However, in April 2021, the court only struck down a piece of the legislation, leaving most of it intact. The piece that was struck down allowed religious symbols and garments to be worn by teachers in English schools. In response, Premier Legault’s government appealed the court’s decision, contending that it created an unfair distinction between francophone and anglophone schools. On February 29, 2024, the Appellate Court upheld the legislation, asserting its compatibility with the Constitution.[ix]

            The impact of this legislation has been significant within the Muslim community. Many individuals feel torn between their employment and religious identity. Studies indicate that some Muslims have altered career paths to avoid compromising their religious beliefs, while others have felt compelled to relocate out of the province due to concerns about personal security.[x] Instances of hate and discrimination have risen since the implementation of the Bill, with Muslim women reporting a significant deterioration in their comfort and safety levels in public spaces over the past three years.[xi] It is evident that Bill 21 has caused harm to the Muslim community and must be struck down entirely to protect the human rights of all Canadians.

 

Call to Action

            This discriminatory legislation, which prevents religious minorities from expressing their identities, arises from Québec’s fear of losing its own identity. However, it violates fundamental rights and intensifies discrimination, Islamophobia, and fear among religious minorities. We cannot stay silent while our fellow citizens are denied their fundamental rights and treated as second-class citizens. To learn more and join the fight against Bill 21, visit the websites of the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. We must stand in solidarity with our Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh friends in their fight for their fundamental rights.

 

References


[i] Page, J. (2019, June 11). “Protestors in Quebec City say Bill 21 will ‘create barriers for future generations.’” CBC News. 

 

[ii]  Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (2022). Bill 21. Retrieved from https://ccla.org/major-cases-and-reports/bill-21/.

 

[iii] Béland, D., Lecours, A., & Nootens, G. (2021). Nationalism, Secularism, and Ethno-Cultural Diversity in Quebec. Journal of Canadian Studies 55(1), 177-202.

 

[iv] Luft, A. (2020, June 15). Legault sets up anti-racism task force, remains adamant systemic racism does not exist in Quebec. CTV News Montreal.

 

[v] Higgins, M. W. (n.d.). A Surrogate Creed: Quebec’s Bill 21 truncates religious freedom in the

name of laïcité. Commonweal Short Takes, 17-18.

 

[vi] Dobrowolsky, A.(2017). Gender versus Culture Debates and Debacles: Feminisms, Interculturalism and the Quebec Charter of Values. Canadian Journal of Political Science 50 (2), 515-533. doi:10.1017/S0008423917000051.

 

[vii] Dwivedi, S. (2019, October 18). Our National Silence on Bill 21. The Walrus.

 

[viii]  Safeer, R. (2019). Quebec’s Religious Neutrality Bill: What a Leave to Appeal Could Mean for Bill 21. The Court. Retrieved from http://www.thecourt.ca/quebecs-religious-neutrality-bill-what-a-leave-to-appeal-could-mean-for-bill-21/.

 

[ix] Stevenson, V. (2024, February 29). Appeal Court upholds Quebec law that bars teachers, police from wearing religious symbols. CBC News.

 

[x] Elbourne, E., Kemberley Ens Manning & Zackary Kifell. (2022). The Impact of Law 21 on Quebec Students in Law and Education: Executive Summary of Findings (p. 7). McGill University.

 

[xi] Taylor, M. (2022). Law 21: Discourse Perceptions and Impacts. Association for Canadian Studies.

 

 

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