Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
The notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter is no longer an obscure legal term. Thanks to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s recent use of Section 33 to prevent job action by education workers – he has invoked the clause, or threatened to do so, three times in four years – ordinary Canadians now know that their basic human rights can be suspended at any time. We aren’t talking about emergency measures here, nor are we discussing reasonable limits through democratic mechanisms; ours is the only constitutional democracy that potentially allows for the gutting of basic rights in the name of what a parliamentary majority deems a matter of governance.
Who could have foreseen the consequences of this clause?
Well, Canadian women, for one.
When the Charter was being drafted, women demanded equality rights – but they were derided at committee hearings for doing so. In 1980, Senator Harry Hays derisively countered by suggesting special rights for babies and children, since “all you girls will be out working and we’re not going to have anybody to look after them.” A year later, more than 1,300 women descended on Parliament Hill to assert equality rights in the Constitution, by affirming Section 15 on general equality and proposing Section 28, on gender equality rights.
Initially, the notwithstanding clause could have been used on Section 28, too. But women fought for its exclusion, having had the foresight to ensure that gender equality rights could not be denied by the potential whims of future governments. We owe them a great deal.
And yet, today, we see the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause leading to disproportionate damage to Muslim women in Quebec.
François Legault’s government has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause twice since 2019, to ensure the passage of two bills. One of them, Bill 21, bans some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, but lawyers have provided evidence at the Quebec Court of Appeal – which heard a legal challenge to the bill this month – that only Muslim women who wear the hijab have lost their jobs as a result of it.
Indeed, Quebec’s religious minorities have felt increased alienation and despair in recent years, according to the Association for Canadian Studies. Its survey found that the situation is particularly dire for Muslim women: 73 per cent of them said they’ve felt less safe in public since 2019, while 83 per cent said their confidence in their children’s future has worsened.
The Quebec government touted Bill 21 as a “feminist” law, but it has only reinforced prejudices, and given license to bigots. I know this firsthand: During a visit to Montreal, I was berated by a middle-aged francophone Uber driver for wearing the hijab. At the end of the ride, he asked me not to file a complaint. (Of course, I did the opposite.)
This all illustrates Bill 21′s egregious violation of Section 28 of the Charter – namely, that the law disproportionately affects women, and thus violates gender equality. Since the notwithstanding clause cannot override Section 28, Bill 21 could be seen by the courts as invalid – an argument that University of New Brunswick law professor Kerri Froc raised years ago, and is now gaining traction.
Quebec Muslim women are not wilting. They have protested alongside allies who believe in a Quebec where all individuals can thrive. Take, for example, Institut F, a Montreal-based organization that seeks to ensure Muslim women’s personal agency. Its programs provide resources so that each woman knows that she belongs, her voice matters and she is a valued member of society – even if the Quebec government thinks otherwise. At a recent Institut event, I met talented Muslim women in STEM fields such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and data science – talent that Quebec needs to remain economically competitive. Yet, many of those women expressed doubts about thriving in a society that overtly discriminates against religious minorities.
Something may have to give on this front, too. The labour shortage is so acute in Quebec that the town of Hérouxville – infamous for issuing a code of conduct for immigrants warning them not to stone or burn women alive – is now actively courting newcomers. Today, neighbouring towns are helping migrants find halal food. Economic reality will force the realization that attracting workers means making all feel welcome – not just a select few.
Bill 21’s damage has been done – abetted by the notwithstanding clause. The women who fought to exclude Section 28 from the clause knew its dangers. As Canadians, we must continue that fight to guarantee basic rights for all, be they religious and linguistic minorities in Quebec, education workers in Ontario, or anyone threatened by the notwithstanding clause.