Quebec bill would make religious communities...
The Quebec provincial government has introduced a bill that would prohibit lawyers, teachers and other public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols, such as hijab, or kippah on the job.
Muslim-Canadian advocates immediately condemned the measure, calling it "regressive" and discriminatory. "This legislation is effectively a prohibition on wearing the hijab in Quebec public service, given the overwhelming number of people impacted will be Muslim women," said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, an advocacy group.
Since 7 May, public consultation hearings have begun on the bill, but religious community advocates have decried the process as political theatre. The proposed legislation, known as Bill 21, has divided the Canadian province, with hundreds of people taking to the streets of Montreal over the weekend in protest. Civil liberty groups and community supporters say the measure is unconstitutional, arguing that it violates religious freedom, which is guaranteed under both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms. In a statement, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) said the hearings are "political theatre that are meant to give the illusion of democracy".
The government "is willing to pass a discriminatory law that robs religious minorities of their basic rights and freedoms - and they want to do so without ever hearing from us", said Bochra Manai, the group's Quebec spokeswoman. "Make no mistake: If this law passes, religious minority groups such as Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs will become second-class citizens. They will wake up every day to a different set of opportunities than everyone else in Quebec," Manai said in the statement. Religious community groups have also decried the public consulation process, saying the government has unfairly tilted the odds in its favour by inviting individuals and groups that back the proposal to testify, while shutting out its detractors.
However, the government has staunchly defended the bill, saying it aims to enshrine into law a "typically Quebec model of secularism" and highlights the importance of keeping religion and the state separate. "Quebec is nation. No one contests that reality anymore, or our fundamental right to decide on our own future and the direction of our society," said Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province's minister of immigration, diversity and inclusion. He insisted that the bill finds a "just balance between individual rights and collective rights".
Muslim advocacy groups have said the proposed law overwhelmingly affects Muslim women who wear the hijab - and will lead to their exclusion from society.
The debate over allowing religious symbols in Quebec's public sector has come up in the past decade, with different parties in government introducing - but failing to pass - various legislative proposals. After securing a majority in provincial elections last autumn, the current Coalition Avenir Quebec government appears to have the best chance at passing its secularism bill this time around. The government has also indicated it would invoke a clause in Canadian law, known as the notwithstanding clause, to temporarily override protected, individual rights - and thus preemptively stave off a legal challenge against the legislation.
Furheen Ahmed, a Quebec high school teacher who wears the hijab, told Middle East Eye that the proposed legislation plays up divisions between Quebeckers. "It's one of these issues that gets people fired up and gets people really emotional," she said. "It's frustrating because you're constantly having to defend yourself."
The English Montreal School Board (EMSB), an English-language public school board that represents 44,000 students in 77 schools and education centres, said it would not follow the new directives. "This proposed legislation would be contrary to the values the EMSB teaches its children, in particular, values of diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual rights and religious freedoms," Julien Feldman, an EMSB commissioner, said in a statement.
The Human Resources Committee of the EMSB, chaired by Commissioner Julien Feldman, studied this issue. The EMSB believes a religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way impacts their ability to teach and provide quality education in a secular state and that the EMSB values inclusiveness and the diversity of its students and staff and respects their personal and religious rights. “The EMSB has never received a complaint from a student or parent about a teacher’s wearing of religious headgear or religious symbol.”