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Quebec Concludes Contentious Hearings on Bill to Prohibit Religious Symbols in Public Sector

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Protestors at a demonstration in Montreal denouncing Bill 21 on 7 April. From thechronicleherald.ca
Protestors at a demonstration in Montreal denouncing Bill 21 on 7 April. From thechronicleherald.ca

Legislative hearings into Quebec’s controversial Bill 21, which seeks to prohibit religious symbols in the public sector in the Canadian province, came to an end on 16 May. The legislation, which is expected to be adopted in June, will affect all new public sector employees, including government lawyers, public school teachers, and police officers.

The bill invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allowing the “provincial government to override the Charter for a period of five years.” (CHATELAINE) Following last week’s hearings, the bill will next be debated in the legislature and then head back to the committee for study.

Existing public sector employees will not be affected by the legislation, providing they do not move into different positions, in which case they too will be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. Proponents of the bill argue that the use of religious symbols threatens Quebec’s secularism. François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), who campaigned strongly on the issue during the 2018 elections, said he believes the bill to be “a fulfillment of voters’ wishes.” (CHATELAINE) Legault was sworn in as premier of Quebec in October 2018 and the CAQ currently have a parliamentary majority. 

CBC reported that supporters of the bill are concerned that teachers who wear religious symbols, “be it a cross or a hijab,” will influence impressionable young students. Retired university professor Guy Rocher, who was a member of the public commission that led to the secularization of Quebec’s education system in the 1960s, spoke out in favor of the bill, saying: “If we allow people to wear ostentatious symbols, it might also lead to the installation of crucifixes and statues. Remember, a law is not just for the present, it is for the future.” (The Telegram)

Guy Rocher, retired professor at the Université de Montréal. From capebretonpost.com
Guy Rocher, retired professor at the Université de Montréal. From capebretonpost.com

Opposition parties—such as the Liberal Party of Canada and Québec Solidaire—argue that there is no evidence to suggest that religious symbols are a threat to secularism. Along with civil rights activists and a number of opposition organizations, they expressed fear that the bill will primarily impact women from religious minorities, such as Muslims and other populations who already experience intolerance. They warned that the bill has serious “xenophobia and sexist” implications. (CHATELAINE)

Speaking at the National Assembly of Quebec on 16 May, Idil Issa, a Montreal writer and activist, and Gabriel Bouchard, president of a women’s rights organization, both argued that the bill “violates basic feminine principals.” (CBC) Amrit Kour of the World Sikh Organization described the intrusive nature of the bill: “Just as individuals would be embarrassed if the state asked them to undress, it’s the same thing as asking a Sikh to take their turban off. It’s akin to a strip search.” (Montreal Gazette)

A number of public institutions, including the English Montreal School Board, have voiced objections to the bill and say that they will not be enforcing the legislation. Although private schools will not be directly affected by the bill, Holly Hampton of the Quebec Association of Independent Schools highlighted that there is already a scarcity of teachers in the region, and warned of the negative impact the legislation would have on the public school system.

Montreal writer and activist Idil Issa. From cbc.ca
Montreal writer and activist Idil Issa. From cbc.ca

According to the Montreal Gazette, statistics from 2011 indicate that Christians are by far the largest religious group in Quebec at 82.36 per cent, followed by those with no religious affiliation at 12.15 per cent. Religious minority groups include Muslims, who make up 3.15 per cent of the population, Jews at 1.10 per cent, and Buddhists at 0.68 per cent. 

The presence of Buddhists in Quebec can be traced back to the 1880s, when Chinese immigrants relocated from British Columbia to the east of Canada. Yet it was not until the country lifted restrictions on Asian immigration in 1967 that Buddhism really began to flourish, with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sri Lankan, and Tibetan migrants settling in the region. Whether the bill will have an impact on Quebec’s Buddhist community remains to be seen, although other minority religious groups are expected to feel it deeply. 

See more

What Is Quebec’s Secularism Bill—And How Does It Affect Women? (CHATELAINE)
Religious symbols ban pits Quebec feminists against each other (CBC)
As hearings end for Quebec’s secularism bill, critics bemoan lack of data (CBC)
Bill 21: Quebec’s hearings on secularism wrap with pitch for inclusion (Montreal Gazette)
Religion in Quebec: The bigger picture (Montreal Gazette)
Without Bill 21, religion could return to Quebec schools, sociologist says (The Telegram)

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