François Legault’s government passed a ban on some public servants wearing religious symbols in a final vote late Sunday night, enshrining into law a measure decried by opposition parties, minority groups and human-rights observers as an affront to personal liberty.
The National Assembly debated Bill 21 under closure in a marathon special weekend session that ended with Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government forcing passage of the law by a 73-35 vote, with backing of the Parti Québécois. Earlier Sunday, the CAQ used its majority to push through Bill 9, a law that enables new French-language and values tests that the government says will protect Quebec identity while refocusing immigration on economic interests.
The weekend in the legislature was marked by acrimony reflective of the debate that has roiled Quebec for more than 10 years over the place of religious minorities in the province. Some exhausted MNAs cursed at each other, others said they were on the verge of tears at times.
At the very last minute Mr. Legault’s government added a provision to allow inspectors to verify the law is being followed. “Securalism police!” shouted Quebec Liberal member Marc Tanguay in one of the final outbursts of the debate. Another last-minute amendment said the inspector could impose corrective measures and supervision. A final addition said “the targeted employee could be subject to disciplinary measures for failing to comply.”
Bill 21 will ban teachers, police, government lawyers and others in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as Muslim head coverings and Sikh turbans. Police officers, provincial jail guards and prosecutors who wear religious symbols are rare in Quebec but the province has dozens of female Muslim teachers. Religiously dressed teachers already on the job will have acquired rights to continue wearing the garments but they will not be able to take a transfer, promotion or new job and wear them.
The law will also require people receiving or giving government services to uncover their faces for security purposes or confirming identity – a measure that mostly affects Muslim women who wear a full-face veil.
The law includes the notwithstanding clause to prevent challenges based on religious freedom under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also modifies Quebec’s Charter of Rights to reduce religious rights, marking the first time the National Assembly changed the landmark 1975 rights legislation without a consensus.
Religious groups and rights lawyers say they will try to strike down the law anyway. The law will most affect Muslim women and the notwithstanding clause cannot be used to shield gender-discrimination cases. Montreal school boards and some municipal leaders have said they will not apply the law. On the weekend, the School of Education at Bishop’s University became the latest group to reject the law, calling it “a dangerous precedent that creates a climate of suspicion, fear and hostility that serves to render the profession of teaching unsafe, and schools less safe, for everyone.”
Several opposition members called Sunday a dark day for Quebec. Mr. Legault said he is putting to rest a divisive debate and is acting on the will of the people. His law is popular, particularly among the province’s francophone majority.
“There are collective rights, and Quebeckers have a right to tell the rest of Canada, ‘This is how we live in Quebec,’” Mr. Legault told reporters.
In the shadow of the Bill 21 controversy, Bill 9, the immigration law passed Sunday, is also a source of conflict.
The province’s plan to deny residency to immigrants who fail French-language and values tests is in protracted negotiations with Ottawa. The bill is also controversial because it throws out 18,000 applications already filed under the old system.
Iranian computer programmer Armin Khodaei first applied to immigrate to Quebec five years ago and spent more than $1,200 for test and application fees, French lessons and postage. His file is now in the dustbin. “I’ve invested a big part of my life into this project, and unfortunately I know now it was the wrong decision,” he said. Mr. Legault says applicants such as Mr. Khodaei can reapply under the new system and will get quicker answers. Mr. Khodaei, 30, says he is moving on to other potential destinations.
But unanswered questions remain about Bill 21, which makes Quebec the only jurisdiction in North America with a religion-based dress code. It’s not clear who will decide if a head scarf is a fashion statement or a religious one. Just last week, Mr. Legault was uncertain if a wedding ring might be banned. (He later said it would not be.)
The Quebec Liberal Party and Québec Solidaire were against the law.
“We have been proud of the progress we’ve made on discrimination since we passed our bill of rights unanimously in 1975 to include religious liberty,” said Hélène David, the Liberal critic on the bill. “It’s a sad day.”
Left-wing separatist Québec Solidaire MNA and co-spokesperson Sol Zanetti predicted the government will send religious minorities “into the arms of Canada to defend their rights and freedoms. Mr. Legault says he’s protecting social cohesion; it’s this law that puts social cohesion in peril.”
Other hard-line Quebec nationalists said the government did not go far enough to limit religious expression. The Parti Québécois wanted the law to include daycare instructors, a job that is often a first entry point into the work force for immigrant women, including hundreds of Muslims.
“The issue is coherence,” PQ interim leader Pascal Bérubé said. “Quebeckers strongly favour including daycare and private schools. Why spare them?”