Religious Rights in Workplace: Quebec’s Bill 21

“It is impossible to deny that there are xenophobic parts to this bill. There is a reason why this bill is coming from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) in an article published by Al Jazeera last November 1. 

The statement was in response to Bill 21 which is now being constitutionally challenged by four different lawsuits including the first filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) with Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) alongside a Muslim woman named Ichrak Nourel Hak during the first 12 hours after the bill was passed last June 2019. 

In September 2019, Coalition Inclusion Québec filed a lawsuit on behalf of three teachers which contains the “widest range of constitutional arguments” as reported by CBC. Another was filed by the English Montreal School Board which challenges the specific part of the bill applying to public school teachers. The last to be filed was by the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a union that represents over 45,00 Quebec teachers. 

What is Bill 21?

 

 

Bill 21 or also known as “An act respecting the laicity of the State” advocates for a neutral religious stance following the separation of Church and State was first introduced in March last year and became a law in June. 

The controversial law states that public workers or government employees working in the province will be banned from wearing religious symbols while on the job like hijab worn by Muslim women, kippahs worn by Jewish men, and turbans worn by Sikhs. The law impacts public school teachers, judges, police officers, and other public workers who belong to the marginalized and minority communities who wish to show their faith.

According to CBC, the bill also states that people have to “uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes.”

It has become one of the hottest issues during the federal election and while Justin Trudeau along with Jagmeet Singh, Andrew Scheer, and Elizabeth May had all denounced the bill, there were no concrete actions done to challenge it. 

Impact of Bill 21: The Anti-Muslim Sentiment

Justice Femme, a Montreal’s women’s rughts group, reported over 40 calls from Muslim women who experienced verbal and physical abuse such as being spat on as well as attempts to rip off their hijabs as soon as the bill was tabled last year in March. 

The law was called out as discriminatory and has put minorities as “second-class citizens”. In a phone interview, Farooq told Al Jazeera that people have “lost their jobs simply because of what they wear and what they believe.” He also added, “People have had to leave the province and change who they are. That is not acceptable. That’s why we will never stop fighting Bill 21.”

Despite strong opposition, Quebec Premier Francois Legault continued to defend the bill and insisted that “it is a moderate measure that does not violate freedom of religion and is supported by a vast majority of Quebecers.” That is, pertaining to a survey conducted by Leger Marketing commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies a month before the bill was passed. 

The survey showed that 63% of the respondents supported the bill. There is also a 72% Quebecers who had negative views about Islam and 88% of those voted yes for the bill. 

The Quebec government remains with its claimed neutral stance and said that the bill was non-discriminatory and “applied to people of all faiths equally, civil rights and community groups”. Moreover, Legault has denied that systemic racism does exist in Quebec despite the plethora of studies outlining the issue. 

The English Montreal School Board as part of its case joined forces with Fédération autonome de l’enseignement and commissioned a report about the benefits of diverse teaching staff on education. 

The report which was prepared by Thomas Dee, a Stanford professor, noted that, “A ban on the wearing of religious symbols among primary and secondary teachers is likely to reduce teacher diversity and to have negative effects on multiple student outcomes.” The report detailed the sense of belongingness needed by minorities to achieve academic success as well as the socio-economic consequences of the bill which not only affects minorities but white students as well. 

The Court Battle

Montreal-based human rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Mcgill University Pearl Eliadis noted that the battle against the bill would be difficult with the invoked exceptions offered by Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – also known as the “notwithstanding clause” which leaves little legal room to strike down the law. 

In December last year, the appeal filed by the NCCM and CCLA to suspend the bill until the case is heard was denied by the Quebec Court of Appeal citing the “notwithstanding clause” which allows provincial governments to override Sections 2 and 7 to 15 of the Charter (fundamental freedoms and legal and equality rights) for up to five years. 

Still, Eliadis noted that there are provisions in the Canadian charter that can still be used to challenge the law in hopes of overturning it. 

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