The government of Quebec, Canada’s second-most populous province, wishes to assure everyone that its newly proposed religious symbol ban doesn’t target hijabs, kippa, kirpans and the like. Rather, by outlawing the wearing of such accoutrements by certain government workers, it is ensuring that those who police streets, judge defendants, guard prisoners and teach children do not betray even a modicum of faith to those in their care – “a concrete affirmation that the Quebec state is secular”, as Quebec’s immigration minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, put it recently.
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It is an almost laughable conceit. In reality, the proposed law, which the government tacitly admits contravenes Quebec’s own charter of rights and freedoms, is the fruit of over a decade of institutionalized animus directed towards Quebec’s religious minorities on the part of its political class. As such, it will disproportionately affect these religious minorities, who already face discrimination and outsized unemployment rates compared to their white, largely lapsed Catholic brethren.
The right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec came to power last fall after a tumultuous election fought in large part over the place and space given to immigrants and religious minorities in the province. On both, the CAQ and its leader, François Legault, have been unbending: there were too many immigrants coming to the province, and creeping, non-Christian religiosity was threatening Quebec’s institutions.
In 2016, the party published an ad picturing Legault’s two main political rivals next to a stern-looking woman in a chador along with the patently false contention that both were “in favour” of having such a woman teaching schoolchildren. That same year, elected CAQ member Nathalie Roy sought to ban the “burkini” from Quebec beaches – only to backtrack when she figured out the doing so would be unconstitutional.
Once elected, Legault promptly cut Quebec’s immigration quotas by 20%,even though the province’s booming economy and ageing workforce has sparked a province-wide labour shortage. He plans on instituting a “Quebec values” test for prospective immigrants; failing it, he has suggested, would mean expulsion. Legault also wished that those who came to Quebec were more “European”, as he put it during a trip to France last January.
The CAQ’s Bill 21, which Jolin-Barrette tabled this week, is a similarly bad-faith attempt to stoke irrational fears in the name of secularism. It forbids any government employee with “coercive powers” from wearing religious symbols, including police, judges, prison guards and, strangely, teachers. The law would do so in part to re-affirm the “importance to the equality of women and men”, a notion already inscribed in both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights.
It also contravenes the freedom of religion guaranteed in both charters – something of which the government is keenly aware. By pre-emptively invoking the “notwithstanding clause”, a legal manoeuvre that allows it to ignore sections of these charters, the Quebec government has essentially conceded the illegality of its own legislation. Moreover, though it ostensibly exists to reinforce the equality of the sexes, the proposed law is blatantly sexist. An observant Muslim man sporting a beard could teach elementary school. His hijab-wearing wife could not.