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Running Religious Freedom Out Of QuebecRunning Religious Freedom Out Of Quebec

Running Religious Freedom Out Of Quebec

Quebec’s secularism bill is a governmental attempt to coerce the religiosity out of public workers, writes publisher Peter Stockland. 

Peter Stockland
4 minute read

Today’s legislative hearings on outlawing the wearing of religious clothing or symbols by specific Quebec public servants could easily be dismissed as proverbial lipstick on a pig.

In fact, they’re worse, much worse, than a skin-deep brush with porcine cosmetology. They are part of a calculated exploitation of the deep human spiritual need to push other people around from time to time.

As Anna Farrow, executive director of Montreal’s English Speaking Catholic Council, puts it far more diplomatically, though no less critically: “The government has rolled this out from the beginning as a fait accompli. It has essentially said: ‘We have the right to do this because we are in power. This is our vision for Quebec. Too bad for you if it doesn’t coincide with your vision of Quebec.”

Farrow points out the blurring of aggressiveness and absurdity in that vision by noting that Bill 21, as  the legislation is known, seeks to regulate not just visible, but also invisible displays of hijabs, turbans, kippahs, crosses or other sartorial religiosity by teachers, daycare workers, Crown prosecutors and others in the public sector, as broadly defined.

“As the law reads, if I were a public school teacher and I were to wear, as I do, a religious medal that has Mary and the Baby Jesus on it, it wouldn’t matter whether it’s visible or invisible, whether its under (or on) my blouse, what counts is that it’s a religious medal, and that I’m not wearing it for ornamentation but for religious reasons.

“Now, say you have two women teaching in a school. One wears a hijab. One wears a religious medal displaying her faith by a chain around her neck. You have to treat them both the same under the law. You certainly can’t be seen to discriminate. So, what’s the procedure? What’s the protocol? Do you call the teachers into the office and say if it happens again, it’s grounds for dismissal? What happens when someone says, as someone is sure to, ‘no, I’m not taking it off?’?”

No one in the government of Premier Francois Legault seems to have seen fit to foresee such a circumstance, much less plan for it. Shortly after Bill 21’s introduction in the National Assembly, Quebec’s deputy premier suggested the police might be called in the face of such disobedience. Legault threw himself across that as if it were a live political grenade and insisted that was not going to happen. 

Since then, the government has continued blindly blundering down the path with Bill 21. Now it has made clear it’s not only unwilling to see, it’s not willing to listen to believers either.

The legislative committee hearings will run for a working week. But Farrow confirmed that the English Speaking Catholic Council which works on behalf of Montreal’s sizeable Anglophone Catholic population, hasn’t been invited to submit a brief or appear at the hearings. But then, neither have Quebec’s Roman Catholic bishops. For that matter, only two of 36 groups invited to testify at the committee hearings have any kind of  connection with religious faith. 

What religious (and other) groups will be able to do is submit briefs through a volunteer grassroots group called Coalition Inclusion Quebec at a “Consultation Populaire” next Monday. The Coalition will then collate the written objections and present them on behalf of Quebec citizens who are excluded from addressing their own government themselves.

At a Sunday afternoon protest organized by Coalition Inclusion Quebec outside Montreal’s city hall last Sunday, speaker after speaker decried the exclusion of faith groups not only from the Bill 21 legislative hearings but from full participation in Quebec public life. World-renowned philosopher Charles Taylor, who famously co-chaired a commission on reasonable accommodation for minorities in Quebec several years ago, shredded the Legault government’s claim that the proposed law only affirms the existing secular order of the province. Even a former head of the nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society denounced the bill as counter to the inclusive vision of Quebec promoted by advocates of sovereignty. 

Intriguingly, one of the most compelling voices to address the group came from a young Quebecoise teacher who identified herself as first and foremost a feminist.

“I am not a religious believer. I do not wear religious clothing. I am a feminist. But as a feminist, I believe in choice. And Bill 21 takes away the right of Quebecers to make their own choices,” she said to loud applause from the demonstrators.

The theme that developed in the demonstration speeches was that Bill 21 attacks religious freedom, yes, but it also assaults freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom from workplace harassment and intimidation. Indeed, next to the concerns expressed about religious discrimination were stinging criticism about its violation of workplace norms in a democratic, open contemporary society.

Farrow, who attended the rally to show the English Speaking Catholic Council’s support but do not address demonstrators, said ultimately Bill 21 is an attack on collective freedom to live freely in Quebec and in Canada.

“It’s about freedom,” Farrow said. “In striking at religious freedom, it’s striking at all of us. The State has a burden to protect religious freedoms. We should not have to defend ourselves against the State in the exercise of that freedom. But if the State attacks that freedom, it’s attacking them all.”

Given that Bill 21 is at least the third attempt in recent years to push such legislation through the National Assembly, alas, there is an understandable fatigue among many defenders of religious freedom that has led to a weakening of the fight. It’s exacerbated by the Legault government’s decision to use the Charter of Rights’ so-called override clause to prevent it being challenged on constitutional grounds.

So the deep desire to push others around does seem, in this instance, bound to win. The question to be answered, though, is whether Bill 21’s advocates can prevail in using a pragmatically unenforceable law to impose their will on a rapidly diversifying population. 

Or to put a happier face on it, how often do bullies turn out to be their own worst enemies?

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