Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans some provincial employees from wearing religious dress at work, is back in the news after a Grade 3 teacher was removed from her job this month for wearing a hijab.
The Western Quebec School Board moved Fatemeh Anvari to a non-teaching position in an elementary school in Chelsea, Que., after deciding that Bill 21 left it no choice.
As the first concrete example of the legislation’s consequences, Ms. Anvari’s story has rekindled a debate about the law that has become all too polarized – with supporters playing up that polarization and selling an us-versus-them, Quebec-versus-Canada narrative.
Premier François Legault and others spin criticism of Bill 21 from outside the province as “Quebec-bashing.” As for the many Quebeckers who oppose the law, they are accused of undermining the province’s values – of “lèse-québécitude,” as one French-language columnist parodied it this week.
Which explains why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that the wisest course of action for him is to choose his words carefully.
He said he “deeply” disagrees with the law but, by not turning it into another French-English hot potato, he can create space for Quebeckers – a substantial minority of whom oppose the law – to question Bill 21 without fear of being labelled as enemies of the province.
And the cold legal reality is there is little room for Ottawa to intervene, other than rhetorically. The law is in an area of provincial jurisdiction and is largely inoculated against Charter challenges by the National Assembly’s invocation of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.
But now that Bill 21’s downsides have moved beyond the theoretical, and are attached to concrete harms to a real Quebecker, others in the province are taking a second look at the law and moving past the polarizing language that has blocked reasonable debate.
For example, it’s suddenly okay to note that Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government never demonstrated that its 2019 “Act respecting the laicity of the State” was needed to preserve Quebec (and Canada’s) secular status.
The law assumes there is a problem it is trying to address, but what is it? Other provinces allow teachers to wear hijabs on the job. Federal and provincial employees are not prohibited from wearing turbans, hijabs or kippahs in their interactions with the public. Somehow, Canada has not been turned into a religious state.
Critics in Quebec have also pointed out, especially since Ms. Anvari’s case came to light, that Bill 21, which was based on recommendations in the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission report on religious accommodation, goes further than that report called for.
The commission recommended a ban on religious dress for people in positions of coercive power, such as police officers and judges. The CAQ added teachers to the list.
As well, a columnist in La Presse noted this week that Quebec, faced with a dire shortage of teachers, has hired as many as 30,000 unlicensed instructors. They aren’t fully qualified to teach, but are tolerated under the circumstances. And yet a qualified, licensed teacher gets no exemption, and has been banished from the classroom because of her religion.
Perhaps most damning, Quebec Superior Court judge Marc-André Blanchard ruled in April that Bill 21 violated basic religious freedoms. One can “easily understand,” he wrote, that forcing a person to choose between their faith and a job “has a cruel consequence that dehumanizes those it targets” – people such as Ms. Anvari.
The judge said the law was nevertheless beyond his power to strike down because of the notwithstanding clause. But that constitutional shield lapses every five years. It will only remain in force if it is regularly renewed, like an anti-Charter booster shot, by the provincial legislature.
Bill 21 lives entirely in the realm of politics – where, over the past week, it has faced a growing and welcome degree of scrutiny at the bar of Quebec public opinion. Criticism of the absurdity of sidelining a beloved and badly needed teacher has been widespread in French-language media.
The only way to change Bill 21 now is via politics – Quebec politics. Those outside the province who oppose the law, as we do, should not mute their criticism. But the loudest voices opposing the law, and the only ones that can change it, ultimately have to come from within Quebec.
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