Imagine having a job that you love. You believe you can make a positive difference to society through your chosen career. You have invested heavily in education to arrive at your current position. You can’t imagine yourself elsewhere. Then one day, you are threatened with dismissal.
Not due to a bad performance review – in fact, quite the contrary. Not because of downsizing. Not for lack of qualifications. No, the reason is your expression of faith – although you have never proselytized at work. In fact, you have contributed towards a respectful, inclusive workplace. Your co-workers are like family; you’re closer to some than others. Along the way, you’ve collectively shared life’s burdens and joys, as you try to build a stable life for you and your family.
But your new employer has decided that you are no longer welcome. Is it a foreign multinational, eager to impose its own vision at the expense of local workers?
No. It’s a new provincial government making good on its promise to impose an exclusionary brand of laïcité. And it is willing to fire individuals from certain professions whose attire falls outside its definition of state “neutrality.” Unfortunately, through no fault of your own, your chosen career is a central target. The government is even eager to trample on your individual Charter rights. And there is nothing that you – a law-abiding, tax-paying, individual – can do about it. What’s more vexing is that some of your co-workers and neighbours have voted for this government and its policies that are harmful for you.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a recent immigrant or if you’ve lived here for generations. It doesn’t matter that you believe in the future of this province, having made the conscious decision to build roots here. It is either your faith or your job.
Welcome to Quebec, where the preceding scenario is a distinct reality. The recently elected Coalition Avenir Québec announced that it would invoke the notwithstanding clause to ban religious symbols for employees in “positions of authority” – including teachers, police officers and prison guards. Examples of offending attire include kippahs, turbans and hijabs.
Following a huge outcry against its plan to fire teachers who wear religious symbols, the CAQ backtracked, offering a kinder, gentler version of discrimination: It will only ban new hires from any expression of faith. Imagine putting yourself through teacher’s college or a police training program, preparing to dedicate yourself to a profession you hold in high esteem – only to be told to discard an integral part of your identity, or choose a different career path.
The CAQ is the third consecutive governing party to threaten a ban of religious attire in the public service. The PQ proposed its infamous Values Charter in 2013, while the Liberal Party’s restrictions on face-coverings were suspended by a provincial court in June.
These efforts reflect the wider debate of defining laïcité, which is distinct from secularism – partly due to the different philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. According to Rousseau, the individual gains freedom through the state, which has the right to regulate the public sphere of religion. Locke, on the other hand, placed freedom of conscience as the cornerstone of individual rights, which guarantees freedom from the state. These opposing views have permeated societies with French and British roots.
The CAQ’s approach will create two unequal classes of citizens. An overwhelming majority will be free to choose any field of employment, while a minority will have its choices restricted. There was a time not too long ago when women were barred or discouraged from certain professions. Why is the government repeating the folly of denying employment based on an individual’s identity, while ignoring a worker’s abilities and qualifications?
Furthermore, employment restriction is a slippery slope. What’s next? Use of the notwithstanding clause to override the suspension of Bill 62, thus denying niqab-wearing women access to library privileges, public transportation and health-care clinics?
However, the larger question is: Why create two tiers of Quebeckers in the first place? It sends a dangerous message of fundamental inequality enshrined as government policy. No wonder the CAQ has been lauded by European xenophobic parties.
The people of Quebec have an opportunity to forge a distinct version of laïcité, shaped by cultural heritage, linguistic identity and the contemporary reality of living in a fully anglicized North American milieu shaped by Lockean roots. The question is whether it will be inclusive or exclusionary.