The Quebec Superior Court began hearing testimony on Nov. 2 in a civil case against Bill 21, a 2019 policy that prohibits certain public sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. Although the plaintiffs contend that the Bill violates certain fundamental rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CCRF), the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) has pointed to popular support for secularism and invoked the CCRF’s notwithstanding clause, arguing that religious freedoms fall under provincial jurisdiction. If the Court favours these arguments, many McGill students pursuing employment in the public sector will continue to be discriminated against. Moreover, considering the magnitude of the constitutional issues in question, the outcome of the proceedings could turn the Canadian legal system on its head.
But respect for basic human dignity cannot become a casualty of limitless litigation and performative politics. On trial is not just the wording of the Constitution, but also the CAQ’s fervent xenophobic agenda. Canadians’ civil liberties must be upheld by the courts, notwithstanding the notwithstanding clause. Yet it is equally incumbent on McGill and other educational institutions to protest such legislation that undermines the livelihoods of their students.
If the law affected Quebecers equally, it would still be unconscionable because it insinuates that Quebec is a cultural monolith, whereas it is and always has been diverse. But its proscriptions are not equally distributed. Unlike Muslim women who wear hijabs, Sikhs who wear turbans, or Jews who wear kippahs, people of the Christian faith do not traditionally wear conspicuous garments. Although some may wear rosary necklaces or other religious adornments, these can easily be hidden under clothing, allowing them to more easily comply with the law.
This double standard is morally bankrupt, and it should not become legally permissible. Secularism must be a ruse if it favours Christian religious expression over others, as its most passionate prosecutors paradoxically advance it under the shadow of the giant cross atop Mount Royal while touting other legacies of colonial French Catholicism. Even if Bill 21 is propped upon stilts of legal technicalities, it will nonetheless fail to differentiate between religious and public affairs because it was only intended to exclude some religions, not all. Instead, the law will triumph when the CAQ’s cultural intolerance expels thousands from public careers in a misdirected effort to preserve Quebec’s cultural idiosyncrasies.
Still, Bill 21’s proponents claim that separating Church and State is especially necessary in the classroom. Nevertheless, by denying teachers’ right to religious expression, the law is preventing them from doing their jobs, pushing them out of schools, and hindering their chances of promotion. But the law does not only harm teachers, it also harms their students. Psychologists have shown that all students benefit from diversity, not just students from specific religious or cultural backgrounds—although it is important for these students to be able to relate to their teachers.
The CAQ’s mission of exclusion threatens McGill as an institution. It is likely to discourage many Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and students of other faiths from applying, as its implications not only suggest that their faith would hinder their economic mobility, but also that they are unwelcome in Quebec. Although McGill has released statements of “concern” and provided resources to assist current students who are affected by Bill 21, the university can do more to protect students. Many medical and education students, for instance, are required to complete professional experience components in classrooms and hospitals across the province. Administrators must facilitate these programs in a safe manner that ensures students’ right to religious expression.
Above all, as sanctuaries of learning and critical discourse, universities have a responsibility to promote the moral integrity of the societies that produce them. Likewise, as reservoirs of capital, innovation, and national reputation, they possess tremendous political influence that their administrators often underestimate. Bill 21’s secularism belies Quebec’s multicultural reality, but universities are indeed a source of public wisdom and guidance. It behooves McGill to denounce bigotry and demand that Quebec’s courts dig channels of social equality rather than deep trenches of fortified ignorance.