Quebec legislature passes controversial secularism bill

After a marathon 16-hour debate, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) passed Bill 21, an Act respecting the laicity of the State, late at night on June 16. The new law is designed to promote state secularism by prohibiting public sector employees from displaying religious symbols while working. The bill affects teachers, police officers, and lawyers employed by Quebec, among other professions, and enforces penalties for non-compliance.

At McGill, the law will have consequences for students in programs like education, who seek to enter the public sector in the future. In April, numerous school districts and Montreal borough mayors rejected the bill on principle, prompting the addition of a clause which allows unspecified “disciplinary measures” for employees who do not comply.

The act follows in the footsteps of Bill 62, which also aimed to promote laïcité, a French concept of secularism, by preventing people wearing face coverings from accessing public services. 

Bill 21 prompted an outpouring of activism from McGill students and community organizers in Quebec. On April 4, the Education Undergraduate Society (EdUS) denounced the bill, and the following day, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released a statement accusing the bill of “[granting] further legitimacy to racist and xenophobic bigotry.”

“[EdUS] stands in solidarity with all current and future teachers who are impacted by this bill,” a statement by the EdUS reads. “We are extremely upset by the fact that this may prevent our peers from becoming teachers, and we support the [English Montreal School Board] and [Lester B. Pearson School Board]’s decisions to not enforce this bill.”

Following the passage of the bill, Provost of Student Life and Learning Christopher Manfredi released a short statement regarding its role at the university. 

“While the law will not change our policies and practices, we are concerned that it will affect and unnecessarily restrict some of our students’ future employment opportunities,” Manfredi wrote.

Kareem Hammami, U1 Arts and Science, is one of many McGill students who have taken to the streets to voice opposition. Hammami helped organize an protest on April 12 outside of the Ministry of Immigration to increase pressure on the government to abandon the bill.

“This debate has been going on for ten years, […] at first, it was deliberately targeted at Muslims,” Hammami said. “Just the language they used at the time was targeted at Muslims […] and now [the CAQ] is trying to broaden the language to make it seem like its better, but it’s still discrimination. It still excludes people from society.”

While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, the law invokes Section 33 of the Charter, commonly referred to as the notwithstanding clause, a provision which enables law  to override certain rights prescribed in the Charter. In April, the Canadian Bar Association called for Quebec to remove the use of the clause from the law, arguing that the courts need to be able to examine the bill’s constitutionality in order to determine if it should be struck down.

“In history, whenever you invoke the notwithstanding clause, you lose the next election,” Hammami said. “Considering this is something that was pretty popular with [the CAQ’s voter] base, it might actually work in their favour. But I hope history plays out the way it has [in the past].”

Aziz Choudry, a professor in the Department of Education who specializes in anti-racist education, expressed skepticism towards the motivations behind the bill. 

“I think we should really be quite critical of the notion of laïcité, in […] both laïctié as a concept, and how its used politically,” Choudry said. “The bill itself ultimately has racist and discriminatory kinds of effects.”

While the CAQ has claimed that the bill is not specific in its targeting of religious minorities, it is regarded by many as disproportionately affecting Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh citizens, whose religious symbols tend to be more visible than those of other religions.

“We’ve had this long history of obsessing [over] what Muslim women wear, and folks from Jewish, Sikh, or other communities as well,” Choudry said. “And what this ultimately does is [serve] to be a form of social exclusion. I think that a fundamental thing that lies at the heart of this is the racism and discrimination that’s built into [the bill’s] justification. The invoking of laïcité is something that we need to actually unpack, rather than just take it a surface level of being a neutral, secular concept.”

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