On April 20, 2021 the Superior Court of Quebec issued a ruling on Bill 21, Quebec’s Secularism law which many Canadians were awaiting with baited breath. It was a victory for some, and a tragedy for others.

In its decision, it upholds the Quebec Secularism law with the exception of English schools in Quebec, and the Coalition Avenir du Quebec government under Premier François Legault has already announced its plans to appeal. This article will give a rundown of the ruling itself, the response by those affected, and what it represents to the people of Quebec and Canada.

I’m not going to go into all the nuances of Quebec’s Secularism Law, hereafter Bill 21. I gave a full and detailed rundown in multiple articles when the law was forced through the National Assembly in 2019.

In a nutshell, it severely limits employment in most of Quebec’s public sector as well as access to certain government services for anyone who wears religious symbols, including crosses, hijabs, headscarves, and kipas/yarmulkes. At the time, the government claimed the law would unite Quebeckers, but it has made us more divided than ever. Hate crimes and harassment of Muslim women are on the rise, something experts tried to warn the government about prior to the law’s passing.

The government knew that the law would never survive a legal challenge based on constitutional rights so they wrote in the Notwithstanding Clause, a clause written into Canada’s constitution to allow discriminatory rules to remain in effect for five years notwithstanding certain articles in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is largely the court’s measure of the effect of the Notwithstanding Clause that decided the outcome of the case.

I knew that no matter WHAT the court’s ruling, someone would appeal the decision. That someone is the Quebec government and it is unfortunate because for the most part, the Quebec government won the case.

Bill 21 is still in effect, and teachers and other people hoping for the stability that comes with public employment have had their hopes dashed, with one exception. The court decided that Bill 21 remains valid due to the province’s use of the Notwithstanding Clause, with the exception of English schools, which are constitutionally protected by a clause in the constitution that isn’t covered by the Notwithstanding Clause, as well as the National Assembly. It is this aspect that the government plans to appeal, claiming that this exception divides Quebec when the province’s society should be united.

William Korbatly, a lawyer, feels the government’s claim that the judge’s ruling split Quebec is erroneous and dishonest.

“[I]t’s the law 21 that did that by making some Quebeckers lesser citizens than those who think of themselves (as) superior or have more privileges just because they are part of the cultural majority. That being said, we cannot deny that a large part of Quebeckers have serious problems and are very allergic to any religious manifestation in public spaces. Thus, politically speaking, that law should be put to the courts’ authorities and they will decide what is constitutional and what is not.”

Unfortunately despite Quebec’s ongoing teacher shortage, English schools in the province will still be subjected to Bill 21 pending appeal.

Carolyn Gehr, an Orthodox Jewish woman and teacher with the Montreal English School Board who wears and headscarf and submitted an affidavit with the other plaintiffs had some choice words about the legal decision keeping the law in force for now.

“I feel horrible for the prospective teachers who enthusiastically applied to the English school boards who desperately need them, only to find out in a day or two that their hopes were dashed yet again, and that this ruling does nothing for them for the foreseeable future. The fact that the government is fighting this so vociferously reinforces in me the idea that I’m not really wanted here, especially in that I’m only allowed in my job as I am because ‘Oncle Francois’ magnanimously grandfathered me in so as not to offend the sensibilities of people who don’t like to see someone fired for no reason.”

M. I. a Muslim teacher working in the private sector who no longer wears her hijab for personal reasons spoke of why she chose to take it off.

“I grew up in a moderately conservative Muslim family and the choice to wear the hijab was mine to make and I chose to wear it until about a year ago. Why I chose to take it off was a completely personal choice because I was no longer wearing it for religious reasons. It just provided me with a sense of comfort and not wearing it felt like going out without my pants on since I had worn it for so many years.”

On Bill 21, she says she and most of her community were very concerned. There was this feeling that this sort of law would never happen in Canada and most members have been directly or indirectly affected.

“I know the law adversely affects all religious communities but as a Muslim woman who used to wear the hijab my feelings are very strong when it comes to the effect the bill has on the women in my community. I find this law to be discriminatory, anti-feminist and anti-human rights. As a woman, I cannot accept that someone can have any say in how I choose to cover myself. I am well-educated and have never been forced by any part of my religion and can say for a fact that his holds true for most women in my community.”

M.I. says the Muslim community is one of the fastest growing minorities in Quebec and that the law, like the hijab ban in France, is just a way of keeping minorities under control. She points out that this open hostility has just led to more anger and extremism among Muslims in France than ever before. Adding, like Carolyn Gehr, that Bill 21 made her feel she didn’t belong.

“I am many things: Iranian, Muslim, Canadian and a Montrealer but a Quebecker I am not. I no longer feel any pride in that.”

Francois Legault and the Coalition Avenir du Quebec and others with clear and open hostility towards visible and religious minorities in Quebec represent the worst elements of Canadian and Quebec society. A society that buys into the narrative of white victimhood and denial of a more honest history that includes everyone who contributed to the great society we have today.

In metropolitan areas like Montreal, more and more people find this attitude dangerous and even laughable and recognize that those who support it can either embrace the diversity that enriches our food and other aspects of our culture, or die with the dinosaurs. That said, let the government know their decision to appeal is a frivolous waste of Quebec tax dollars when there’s a pandemic and a housing shortage to address. The fight’s only over when we the people say it is, so keep fighting.

Featured image of the Palais de Justice in Montreal by Jeangagnon via Wikimedia Commons

December 12th, 2019 was a sad day for visible minorities in Quebec. The Quebec Court of Appeal denied the application to suspend certain sections of the Laicity Act aka Bill 21 until the Superior Court decides on their constitutionality.

A lot of eyes were on the Quebec Court of Appeal in anticipation of this ruling. Some in favor of Bill 21 even tried to undermine the court by questioning the impartiality of the chief justice, Nicole Duval Hesler. Among them were historian and Dawson College professor Frédéric Bastien, who publicly argued ten days before the ruling that Hesler could not be impartial because she has spoken in favor of multiculturalism and religious accommodation.

While most people would consider Hesler an enlightened judge, her critics cried bias, going insofar to file a complaint against her with the Canadian Judicial Council, the body responsible for ensuring the quality of judicial services in Canada.

The authors of the law knew that Bill 21 could not withstand a legal challenge by an objective court. It’s why they wrote the Notwithstanding Clause into the law, and why in anticipation of the Court of Appeal’s decision, they attempted to undermine its chief justice.

Turns out the bigots were wasting their time questioning Hesler’s impartiality, for while Hesler voted to grant the appeal, she was overruled by her fellow judges. In the 2-1 decision, the court decided that the Notwithstanding Clause written into the law made suspension of articles within it impossible until the Superior Court gave their own ruling on its constitutionality.

Now let’s talk about the Court of Appeal decision.

The ruling was the outcome of an appeal of a Superior Court decision rendered on July 18, 2019. The plaintiff in this case is Ichak Nourel Hak, a student scheduled to complete her Bachelor of Education this winter. She hoped to teach high school French in Quebec, but the passing of Bill 21 last June made that impossible.

The law bans many public service employees – including teachers – from wearing religious symbols while working. Hak wears a hijab, and the law as it stands only allows existing employees who wear such symbols to keep their jobs.

New hires and people seeking a promotion would have to remove the signs of their faith in order to work. As it stands, and in spite of the teacher shortage in Quebec, many people have found their job offers rescinded or their applications denied since the enactment of Bill 21.

Hak and three other groups, among them the English Montreal School Board and the Canadian Council of Muslims, are all working to challenge the law in court, but until those challenges are heard and decided, the law remains in effect.

Hak went to the Superior Court seeking an injunction to suspend articles 6 and 8 of the Laicity law until the constitutional challenges were decided.

Article 6 prohibits certain public employees from wearing religious symbols. It also defines religious symbols as all objects, especially clothing, symbols, jewelry, accessories and headgear worn with religious conviction or belief, as well as anything that could be considered religious clothing. Article 8 requires that members or employees of public institutions carry out their duties with their faces uncovered, and that anyone wishing to receive government services must uncover their faces in order to receive them – a clear reference to the Niqab worn by some Muslim women. Though the Laicity Law is supposed to apply to everyone equally, experts agree its effects will be felt mostly by Muslim women in Quebec.

The Superior Court refused to suspend these parts of the law because of the Notwithstanding Clause written into it. The Quebec Court of Appeal maintained that decision.

So what is the Notwithstanding Clause and why can it affect a provincial court decision?

All laws in Canada, be they provincial or federal, are subject to the Constitution, which takes precedence over all other laws. Included in the Constitution is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Laws that violate the Constitution can be challenged in court, and in the case of a successful challenge, struck down. In order to avoid such challenges, governments can use the Notwithstanding Clause.

The Notwithstanding Clause is section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is written into our constitution to allow governments, provincial and federal, to enact laws that violate sections seven to fifteen of the Canadian Charter – sections referring to equality, freedom from discrimination, and the rights of the accused in criminal cases – provided they indicate within the law that it applies notwithstanding the Charter.

The Clause is not, however, the great block to legal challenges Premier François Legault makes it out to be, as it’s only valid for five years. At the end of the five year period, the National Assembly can let it expire thus opening it to new legal challenges, or they can renew it by another act of parliament.

The five-year limit allows for governments to change and in cases where a law has been struck down by the courts, it can buy governments time to keep the law in effect while they rewrite the law so that it conforms to the Charter.

Any legal challenges to the Laicity law will either have to wait for the five years to expire, or find ways around the Notwithstanding Clause to successfully challenge the law. Current challenges include, but are not limited to:

  • That the law violates section 28 of the Canadian Charter guaranteeing equal treatment before the law of males and females given that the law disproportionally affects women. In the past, section 28 has only been used to interpret laws, not challenge them.
  • That the law criminalizes the wearing of religious symbols in certain professions and therefore is unconstitutional on jurisdictional grounds as it was enacted by a provincial government when only the Federal government can enact criminal legislation
  • The law is too vague

The Court of Appeal was not there to render a decision on the Laicity law’s merits. It was there to decide whether or not the law allowed them to suspend certain parts of the law until its merits are decided by another court.

The Court of Appeal recognized that the Laicity Law causes harm to the people it affects, especially women. It recognized that the grounds for the legal challenges – set to be heard by the Superior Court in October 2020 – have merit. It refused to suspend the law until those challenges are heard and decided, stating that the use of the Notwithstanding Clause tied their hands at this stage.

Until the actual challenges to the Laicity law are heard and decided, do not lose hope. Be an open and vocal critic of François Legault and his government and step between those using the law as an excuse to harass and assault innocent people.

Support movements like “Non à la Loi 21” and wear one of their buttons with pride. Show solidarity with Quebec’s religious minorities and laugh openly and loudly at people who defend the law as anything but the legalized bigotry it is.

The fight is not over until we say it is. So keep fighting.

Featured Image of the Quebec Court of Appeals building in Montreal by Jeangagnon via WikiMedia Commons

Today, the Plante Administration announced that after City Hall renovations are complete, they won’t put the crucifix back in the City Council chambers. Yes, this move is about secularism of the state, as the Mayor made clear:

“The crucifix is an important part of Montreal’s heritage and history, but as a symbol, it does not reflect the modern reality of secularism in democratic institutions.”

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante at a press conference on March 20, 2019

Plante also reiterated that she still opposes Quebec Premier François Legault’s plan to ban public sector employees from wearing religious symbols like kippahs and hijabs. The state, for her, and for me, and for anyone who really thinks it through, is the democratic institutions, like the City Council. chambers and not the wardrobe of teachers and bus drivers who work for the government.

Or, to put it in other words, a council member wearing a crucifix and, say, a security guard wearing a turban in the council chamber are just two people expressing their personal beliefs through what they wear. A religious symbol on the wall, though, is the state aligning with the particular religion the symbol comes from.

Not everyone sees it this way. I’ve already seen quite a few internet comments decrying the move as an attack on our traditions and I’m sure there will be talking heads on TV tonight and columnists in Quebec’s dailies tomorrow pissed off about what Plante did as well.

I’m sure that a good chunk, if not most, of the people coming out in opposition to removing the crucifix today will turn out to be the same people who were screaming religious neutrality of the state when the topic was Legault’s plan. I’ve already seen some commenters try and spin it that Plante is just anti-Christian and pro-Muslim.

While few will be that openly bigoted, those that previously supported the religious symbol ban and now oppose the move to remove the crucifix should admit that it isn’t about secularism at all, but about assimilation. They just lost any progressive secularist cover they may have enjoyed until now.

Those that support Plante’s move, want to get rid of the crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly as well and support Legault’s ban, well, at least you’re consistent. Those that oppose both the symbol ban and removing the cross, you’re consistent as well.

Those like me, and now Montreal’s mayor, who don’t want the state to dictate what teachers can wear and think a government chamber is no place for a religious symbol, our logic makes perfect sense.

Those who think we should ban all religious symbols but the Christian ones, you’re not secularists, you’re cultural fundamentalists. And you just lost your political cover.

This is not the time for nuance. This is the time to feel embarrassed as Quebecers and angry at our government for removing any illusion that we are one of the most progressive places in North America with just one letter and two numbers: C-62.

The National Assembly just codified bigotry and intolerance by passing amendments to Bill C-62 denying government services to people with their faces covered, in particular by a niqab or burqua. Once this goes into effect, women wearing the niqab will have to uncover when riding the bus, visiting the public library, the doctor or even their kids’ teacher.

As I said before it was passed, it’s like the Charter on steroids, even though it was passed by a government elected primarily as a protest vote against the Charter.

Quebec is the only place in North America with such regulations. That’s right, we not only beat other Canadian provinces to the punch but even the reddest of red states like Alabama and Arizona.

We did it all under the guise of supposed “religious neutrality of the state” in a room where a crucifix hangs front and center for all to see. The most ironic part being that a state imposing a dress code that targets one religion is being anything but neutral.

This denies essential services to women on the basis of what they wear. The government is telling women what to wear.

Claims that this has something to do with identification are about the dumbest defense I can think of. The only ID I need to ride public transit is my Opus Card proving I have paid. It should be the same for everyone.

Montreal Knows Best

The Quebec Government made this law, but it’s Montreal which will have to enforce it. Yes, Quebec City, Laval and other cities will be stuck with this task as well, but I’ll focus on Quebec’s official metropolis where opposition is the most fervent.

Our bus drivers, our teachers, our doctors and nurses and even our librarians will be tasked with implementing this hate-filled law. The only time a librarian should ever have to get restrictive is when someone is being too damn loud.

I can take a bit of solace in the fact that both major parties vying for control of the city are opposed to this monstrosity. Yes, Projet leader Valérie Plante had a bit of a political hiccup earlier today but swiftly clarified her position.

Here we ride on the bus and metro next to women wearing the niqab and it doesn’t phase us, it’s just a part of life. Here, women who wear the burqa send their kids to school like everyone else and have the right to meet with their kids’ teachers like anyone else.

Are there issues with public transit in this city? Absolutely. With education? Sure. With public libraries? Well, it’s called the internet and it’s causing them problems everywhere.

None of these places need a new problem tacked on, and that’s exactly what C-62 is. It’s turning an issue that really only people who have never seen someone wearing a niqab in real life or have an obsessive belief in assimilation in theory or are members of La Meute (our very own neo-Nazi group) care about into something everyone has to deal with in real life.

C-62 is a disaster that turns Quebec, known as a battleground for progress, into a backwater embarrassment that turns bigotry into law. Is it any wonder the Couillard Government also chose today to rename its council looking into systemic racism? Maybe they realized they had just taken part in that systemic racism themselves in a profound way.

Something needs to change and it starts with all of us. Post, contact anyone who voted for this, do anything you can. This may be embarassing for many (and it sure is for me) but it is also disastrous for some.

M-103, the Private Members’ Motion introduced in the House of Commons by Iqra Khalid, Liberal MP for Mississauga—Erin Mills, to fight Islamophobia in Canada has sadly and predictably sparked anger and debate. While most of the venom being spewed in comments sections and at rallies comes from Islamophobes afraid they may have to stop hating Muslims in public, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is fighting it in a different way, at least officially.

The CPC’s Religious Freedom Critic David Anderson introduced a counter-motion which doesn’t use the word Islamophobia and instead calls on the government to “condemn all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance and discrimination of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and other religious communities.”

Looks like this was the kind of “doesn’t sound that bigoted” cover some were waiting for. I’m now seeing arguments on social media that start by asking why Muslims should be singled out for protection. Of course these are made by some of the same types of people who have no problem singling them out for criticism.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly and Iqra Khalid

Generally, a few comments later, or sometimes even in the same paragraph, their cover drops and they show exactly why we need to take Islamophobia seriously. As if the recent Mosque attack in Quebec City, Friday’s “anti-Islam” blockade in Toronto and the threats received by Khalid and Heritage Minister Melanie Joly over this motion weren’t each enough to do just that.

The CPC approach sounds very familiar to that employed by opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and here in Canada as well. Instead of speaking out against police indiscriminately murdering people in communities of colour, some opted to promote the All Lives Matter narrative instead.

Basic deflection. Saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t whereas insisting that people say All Lives Matter instead means that you want everyone to ignore the disproportionate amount of young people of colour being murdered by police. No one counters a Stop Cancer fundraiser by saying All Diseases Matter.

And that’s exactly what’s happening here. Yes, there are hate crimes against other religions, too. Here in Montreal, synagogues get vandalized on a regular basis. Antisemitism is a problem that needs to be dealt with and people are trying to fight it. That doesn’t mean Islamophobia shouldn’t be attacked as well.

When there is a real and present danger to a specific group of people within a society, that danger needs to be admitted, addressed and fought. I’m not sure if a motion in the House of Commons is anywhere near enough to fight Islamophobia, but admitting that it is a problem that needs to be dealt with is essential.

The CPC would stop us from performing even that most basic of civic duties. Meanwhile, some of their leadership candidates are openly campaigning for the Islamophobic vote. It’s two sides of the same coin, like the All Lives Matter crowd and the open racists.

Defending the right of the special snowflakes in their base (two can play at that particular name game) to be bigots is no justification to block fighting Islamophobia. Muslims are a target and no amount of defensive re-wording of language will change that, only action.

* Featured image of David Anderson in the House of Commons