Bill 21 Is Québec’s Renewed Attempt at Legislative Intolerance

Though Québec, Canada, has the tendency to portray itself as a progressive and open society, the popular obsession with curtailing the rights of marginalized groups clearly undermines this image. Having made headlines in 2017 following the horrific killing of six Muslims in a Québec City mosque, the province is once again facing scrutiny for the proposed adoption of Bill 21, a new law aimed at restricting public sector workers from displaying religious symbols at work. This revived attempt to legislate religious and civil rights has attracted much criticism, most recently by the United Nations special rapporteurs on religious freedom, racial discrimination, and minority issues.

As Truthout previously reported, the debate on state secularism in Québec has occupied much of the public and political discourse. In 2017, the province’s then-liberal government tried unsuccessfully to ratify Bill 62, a law prohibiting access to public services to those who covered their faces. The bill was rapidly denounced as a discriminatory measure against Muslim women who chose to wear a niqab or burqa. This issue is, unfortunately, not new in a province that has been debating the meaning of state secularism (laïcité) — particularly as it applies to Canada’s Muslim community — since the early 2000s. In 2007, a commission headed by prominent philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard examined the question of religious accommodations and concluded that it was the state’s responsibility to encourage tolerance and to uphold individual religious freedoms.

Nevertheless, the last three governments, formed by three different political parties — the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (PQ), the Liberals, and the newly elected right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) — have continued to bring up this question, and have each successively proposed legislation to selectively combat religious symbolism in the public sphere. It was originally the social democratic PQ that introduced the idea of banning public sector employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols in 2013. The law was widely debated and judged by many to be unconstitutional. Next came Bill 62 in 2017, which attracted tremendous criticism, particularly as it legitimized growing xenophobic tendencies and helped normalize Islamophobic discourse, the culmination of which was the mass murder by white supremacist Alexandre Bissonnette at the Islamic Cultural Center of Québec City. Bissonnette famously entered the Mosque on January 29, 2017, after having been radicalized by “alt-right and xenophobic internet commentators, and murdered six men.

Québécois society has not been immune to the ascendancy of right-wing identity politics. It’s easy to see the coherence with the global trend that has seen increasingly xenophobic and right-wing politicians elected to office. The CAQ’s policies aren’t a far cry from those of the U.K.’s UKIP, France’s Rassemblement National (previously known as the National Front), Italy’s Lega Nord or indeed, those of Donald Trump.

Shortly after his election in October 2018, Québec’s new premier, François Legault, saw his victory applauded on Twitter by none other than Marine Le Pen. Though the CAQ leader distanced himself from Le Pen, Legault has repeatedly been criticized for using very mild language to denounce xenophobia and even white nationalism; he was famously quoted as calling the white supremacist group La Meute “borderline racists” when the group came out in support of his platform.

The new Bill 21 is the closest Québec has ever come to legislating against religious freedoms. As it stands, the current law would prohibit most public sector employees from wearing any religious symbols at work. Most notably, this would include teachers and childcare workers — historically female-majority sectors of employment. Additionally, the bill reprises some elements of Bill 62, in particular, the obligation of removing attire to identify oneself. Critics of the bill have pointed out this seemingly implicit attack on marginalized groups, primarily Muslims, is also an attack on women.

The political class’s determination to pass such legislation seems to stem from the underlying xenophobia — or more explicitly Islamophobia — present in Québécois society. This is apparent, as the religious symbols discussed have most often been those associated with Islam. Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, recently stated during an interview with the Montreal Gazette,

Clearly, what is underlying (support for Bill 21) is negative sentiment toward Islam, Muslims and hijabs. It’s not about Christian religious symbols. The historic baggage of Catholicism and its negative role in Quebec isn’t part of the identity of a lot of Quebecers, despite what we hear from a lot of thought leaders.

This proposed legislation has, unsurprisingly, been condemned by civil rights advocates, including the Québec Commission on Human Rights (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Québec). Charles Taylor, the philosopher tasked by the province with examining state secularism in 2006-7, has characterized the bill as shameful and called for collective opposition.

The city of Montréal, the province’s largest and most multicultural city, has also denounced the bill. Fatima Nabti, a Montreal-based political activist, described the new law to Truthout as, “A clear attempt to institutionalize racism and discrimination within Quebecois society,” and stated that, in passing such a bill, “Québec is following the example set by countries like France, [which] openly discriminate against their Muslim citizens.” Hundreds of people in Montréal marched against the bill on April 7 and more protests are planned. Some Québécois municipalities such as Hampstead, a suburb of Montréal, have openly affirmed that they will not abide by Bill 21, a statement that drew criticism from the Legault government.

Most recently and significantly, Bill 21 has attracted the scrutiny and condemnation of the United Nations special rapporteurs on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance; Minority Issues; and Freedom of Religion or Belief. The U.N. experts delivered a letter (dated May 17) to the Québécois government expressing their fear that the proposed legislation is “likely to undermine the freedom of conscience, religion and equality of citizens.” Moreover, the authors express the probability of increased prejudice and discrimination for visible minorities. Though, for the time being, the strength of this moral condemnation has yet to resonate with provincial officials who have refused to back down from the proposed bill.

Amid the controversy surrounding Bill 21, the Legault government has decided to enact a special parliamentary measure, know as Le baillon, which essentially limits the amount of time assembly members have to debate a proposed law before a vote. This is a clear attempt by the Legault government to force through the widely contested legislation – particularly as the vote has been scheduled to take place over the weekend of June 15-16. It, therefore, remains likely that, once it is adopted, the real challenge to Bill 21 will take place in the provincial or federal courts.

This latest incarnation of Québec’s state-sponsored xenophobia is worrying. However, it needs to be perceived as symptomatic of the same underlying conditions which have produced widespread intolerance and violence throughout the Western world. Recall that the New Zealand Mosque shooter posted photos online with the name of Alexandre Bissonnette written on a rifle. The causes of emboldened racism and xenophobia are global. Economic precarity, lack of housing, disillusionment with the current political structures — these conditions have led to the rise of populist discourse, made readily available to all on the internet, seeking to scapegoat religious and cultural groups for the collective struggles of working-class people of all faiths and backgrounds. Thus, the response to such intolerance lies not only in the denunciation of xenophobic policies, but also in the support for progressive — even radical — measures aimed at reducing economic inequality and increasing government accountability and collective agency.

Unfortunately, the CAQ’s victory in Québec is very much in line with the rise of populist and nationalist parties around the Western world. The phenomenon is even more significant when one considers that the province’s elections are historically contested by two parties — the Liberals and the PQ. The CAQ’s win therefore marks a worrying shift in Québécois politics.

As the world faces increased challenges due to the current political crisis, immigration and population displacement will undoubtedly be an essential issue in the coming years. Combined with the rise of populist identitarian discourse, this could make for a very hazardous context. It’s essential that we denounce all attempts to “otherize’’ and undermine the rights of marginalized groups. Bill 21 is a prime example of such discriminatory policies that need to be resisted.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the vote will take place during the weekend of June 15-16.