Gérard Bouchard, the academic whose report provided the intellectual foundation for Quebec’s attempts to regulate religious dress in the public service, has joined his co-author Charles Taylor in condemning the latest draft bill before the legislature.
Mr. Bouchard, a sociologist who wrote a report with Mr. Taylor 11 years ago suggesting the government impose a secular dress code for public servants in “coercive” roles, blasted Premier François Legault in an article in La Presse on Friday for vastly expanding the list to include, among others, teachers.
Mr. Bouchard joined Mr. Taylor, a philosopher, and a growing list of increasingly vocal opponents of the draft law introduced on March 28 to ban religious garments such as the hijab and turban for public servants in what the government describes as “positions of authority.”
In the past week, a school organized a protest, some school boards and municipalities announced they will disobey the law and the Liberal opposition in the National Assembly relentlessly attacked the government. Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand, the usually mild-mannered Opposition Leader, questioned whether Mr. Legault is fit to be Premier.
Several efforts to organize opposition surfaced on Friday alone. Le Devoir published a letter from about 250 academics calling on the government to withdraw the bill and describing it as discriminatory and anti-religious. Mr. Taylor was among the authors. He disavowed his own report two years ago, and has already called the bill “deplorable.”
Municipal, provincial and federal politicians, including Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, formed a coalition and announced they will organize a protest against the bill next Friday. The temperature of the rhetoric is rising, too. William Steinberg, the mayor of the Montreal suburb of Hampstead and part of the coalition, described Bill 21 as racist and a form of peaceful ethnic cleansing. Mr. Housefather distanced himself from the statement and the provincial minister in charge of the file, Simon Jolin-Barrette, called for calm.
Mr. Legault and many other Quebec politicians and commentators who want a more secular public service have used what they describe as the “Bouchard-Taylor consensus” as a baseline and justification for moving ahead with a dress code. But whatever consensus may have existed has fallen apart.
Mr. Legault has made a “grave error” and perhaps “yielded to demagoguery” by equating the coercive power of law enforcement with the authority of an educator, Mr. Bouchard wrote in La Presse. The sociologist said his intention 11 years ago was to find a compromise that would stick to secular principles but do the least amount of harm by limiting the ban to people with the power to arrest and incarcerate – judges, prosecutors, police and jail guards. Currently, no people in these roles in Quebec wear such symbols.
He criticized Mr. Legault’s plan to use the notwithstanding clause to protect the law from court challenges based on freedom of speech and religion. Mr. Legault often compares his use of the clause to its use in the 1990s on Bill 101, a 1977 law that limited English-language rights so that francophones could live in French.
“Use of this clause has often been motivated by the protection of the rights of some citizens, but here the government is doing the exact opposite,” Mr. Bouchard said. “The government is headed down a perilous road.”
Mr. Legault told reporters on Friday he met with Mr. Bouchard before introducing the law and was aware of the criticism.
The Premier said he is protecting the “collective right” of people to be free from religion. “I know a lot of people hold individual rights dear, but there are also collective rights,” he said. “We have to think about children. It’s fine to think about teachers [affected by the law] but we have to think about children, too.
“Mr. Bouchard speaks about coercion. I’m talking about authority figures. A teacher is a role model for a five-year-old girl."
Mr. Legault said he is willing to consider improvements to his draft law, but added he has already made two big compromises. The bill includes a grandfather clause for existing employees wearing religious garb, and he agreed to remove a crucifix from the National Assembly’s main chamber.