Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
The fierce debate around Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars some public servants in the province from wearing religious symbols, is escalating. Last week in Parliament, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet demanded Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, face a parliamentary committee over his comments that the law is discriminatory and “runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the law during a heated exchange with Mr. Blanchet. These days Mr. Trudeau is saying many of the right things, but his inaction on this issue, as well as the tepid statements of other federal leaders on Bill 21 in recent years, shows that their concern for human rights takes a back seat to crass electoral calculations.
When the bill was first tabled in 2019, leaders of the federal Liberals, NDP and Conservatives remained tight-lipped, lest any Quebec votes be lost in the 2019 federal election. The same applied this past fall, with the shameful spectacle of leaders piling criticism onto moderator Shachi Kurl, who dared describe Bill 21 as discriminatory. Expect more mealymouth “statements” by said leaders in the lead up to the October provincial election in Quebec.
The recent disputes have been sparked by the removal of Fatemeh Anvari, a Grade 3 teacher, from a classroom in Chelsea, Que., for wearing a hijab while teaching in contravention of Bill 21. Imagine: in Canada, a teacher, beloved by parents and students, loses her job for simply abiding by her personal beliefs. The Western Québec School Board hired Ms. Anvari based on her qualifications – without checking to see what she wore on her head. That was a “mistake” admitted the board, echoing the assertion by Quebec Premier François Legault. This is the normalization of discrimination – when qualifications and ability are set aside for an inquisition into the religious basis of a candidate’s appearance. Mr. Legault, who has long denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec, has an unmistakable example of it right in front of him. It’s there in Bill 21 as clear as day.
Finding qualified teachers has been a problem in Quebec. The number of people hired to teach who haven’t completed their teacher training has risen rapidly. Bill 21 isn’t helping. Some university students enrolled in education and teens aspiring to teach are rethinking their career choices since they don’t want to compromise their identity. These gut-wrenching decisions are also faced by religious minorities seeking careers in policing or law within the Quebec government.
According to a September Leger poll, the majority of Quebeckers (64 per cent) are perfectly content to force their fellow Quebeckers to choose between their faith and their job. In the rest of Canada, 28 per cent favour such a ban. A similar 2019 Leger poll found that supporters of Bill 21 were motivated primarily by their antipathy toward Islam. Could this portend further restrictions of religious symbols in the public sphere?
Defenders of the bill assert that it is the natural outcome of the Quiet Revolution, during which Quebec removed the entrenched influence of the Catholic Church. Yet, as Melinda Meng points out in the Harvard International Review, the Catholic Church designed the provincial curriculum to indoctrinate children, with priests and nuns central to its delivery. Today, teachers are hired to deliver a religiously neutral curriculum designed by the state. Their personal belief has no correlation with the curriculum.
What then, is state “neutrality”? In secularism, the state does not favour one religion over another, while preserving individual freedoms. Such freedoms, however, are sacrificed at the altar of laïcité, which bans all religious expression in matters of state representation.
The Quebec government knew Bill 21 would trample on individual freedoms, and thus pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield it from constitutional challenges. This clause allows federal and provincial governments to override Sections 2 or Sections 7 to 15 of the Charter. Your freedom of conscience and religion, thought, expression, peaceful assembly and association can be suspended, as can freedom of the press and equality before the law. You can be arbitrarily detained and denied the right to counsel or protection against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. You can lose the right to the presumption of innocence when charged. If, hypothetically, the Quebec government approved the use of cruel and unusual punishment, that too could become law. Isn’t it time to re-examine this clause that has the power to strip away basic human rights?
In April, Justice Marc-André Blanchard expressed harsh words for the law, describing it as cruel and “dehumanizing those targeted.” However, Ms. Anvari’s job loss shows us the deleterious effects are far wider. What lesson does this teach children? Judging from the heartfelt cards, ribbons and protest in support of Ms. Anvari, it seems the kids can teach the adults a thing or two about fairness, equality and standing up for basic principles.
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