Canada is a secular society, but we are a society that has recognized that secular laws and practices can coexist with many people’s religious beliefs and expressions. It is why in Montreal, for example, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and seculars live together in relative harmony. If Quebec Premier François Legault gets his way, this might all change.
Legault and his Coalition Avenir du Quebec party ran on a platform of promising to bar people who wear religious symbols from positions of authority in the province. They are attempting to do this with Bill 21.
This article is not going to discuss how the CAQ is so clearly pandering to the most disgustingly racist, xenophobic members of Quebec society. It is not going to talk about how the Bill represents the longstanding dispute between welcoming, diverse, multicultural Montreal and the rest of Quebec.
This article is going to talk about what Bill 21 actually contains and the very real fallout for the Quebecois affected if the bill passes. For the purposes of this article, “Quebecois” means anyone living in Quebec (and not just people descended from the original French settlers).
Bill 21 contains important changes to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights, a quasi-constitutional law enacted in the 70s that contains some of Quebec’s strongest protections against discrimination. As the Quebec Charter is only quasi-constitutional, it can be changed by a simple act by the National Assembly.
Bill 21 changes section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter from:
“In exercising his fundamental freedoms and rights, a person shall maintain a proper regard for democratic values, public order and the general well-being of the citizens of Québec.Section 9.1 Quebec Charter of Human Rights, current text
“In exercising his fundamental freedoms and rights, a person shall maintain a proper regard for democratic values, state laicity, public order and the general well-being of the citizens of Québec.”Proposed version of Section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights
The change thus creates an obligation among citizens to have respect for democratic values, state secularism, public order etc. in the exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms under the Quebec Charter. It does not, however, abolish section 10 of the Quebec Charter which states that:
“Every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on race, colour, sex, gender identity or expression, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap. Discrimination exists where such a distinction, exclusion or preference has the effect of nullifying or impairing such right.”Section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights
The Charter also forbids discrimination in “the hiring, apprenticeship, duration of the probationary period, vocational training, promotion, transfer, displacement, laying-off, suspension, dismissal or conditions of employment” based on the aforementioned grounds. As these sections of the Quebec Charter remain on the books, any institutions that enforce Bill 21 could find themselves open to legal action under said Charter which also states victims’ rights in such cases:
“Any unlawful interference with any right or freedom recognized by this Charter entitles the victim to obtain the cessation of such interference and compensation for the moral or material prejudice resulting therefrom. In case of unlawful and intentional interference, the tribunal may, in addition, condemn the person guilty of it to punitive damages.”Quebec Charter of Human Rights
Matt Aronson, a lawyer in Montreal says that “if a state funded institution practices discrimination as an employer, causing damages to a citizen, it’s possible that not only could a citizen sue to have the discrimination stopped, they may even be able to sue for punitive damages. Now, there is a section of the Quebec Charter that allows for rights and freedoms to be limited in scope by laws, but that would be a fairly difficult retort to state sanctioned discrimination.”
As a result, the government can and will find itself open to costly lawsuits if Bill 21 passes as increasing numbers of people have publicly committed to fighting back.. The English Montreal School Board, for example, has publicly stated that they will not enforce the Bill, and a public protest in scheduled on Sunday, April 7th, in Montreal.
True to Legault’s election promise, Bill 21 bars government employees from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions. This is the list of employees who will be affected – I am including the full list so people fully understand how many will be hurt if this law passes:
- Judges, clerks, deputy clerks, and sheriffs
- Members of the Comité de déontologie policiere – the group responsible for holding police to account for misconduct
- Members of the Commission de la fonction publique
- Members of the Commission de la protection du territoire agricole
- Members of the Commission des transports du Quebec
- Members of the Commission Municipale
- Members of the Commission quebecoise des liberations conditionelles
- Employees of the Regie de l’energie
- Employees of the Regie d’alcools, courses, et jeux
- Employees of the Regie des marche agricoles et alimentaires du Quebec
- Employees of the Regie du batiment du Quebec
- Employees of the Regie du Logement
- Members of the Financial Markets Administrative Labour Tribunal
- Members of the Administrative Tribunal of Quebec
- Chairs of the Disciplinary Council
- Commissioners appointed by the government under the Act Respecting Public Inquiry Commissions and lawyers and notaries working for said commissioners
- Arbitrators appointed by the Minister of Labour in accordance with the Labour Code
- The Quebec Justice Minister and Attorney General
- The Director of penal prosecutions
- Lawyers, notaries, and penal prosecuting attorneys
- Peace officers who exercise their functions mainly in Quebec
- Principals, vice principals, and teachers of educational institutions under the jurisdiction of the school boards
It must be noted that the law does contain a grandfather clause allowing all current employees wearing religious symbols to keep their current jobs. That said, anyone hoping for advancement would have to choose between their faith and a promotion to even be considered a candidate for one.
In addition to barring people wearing religious symbols, Bill 21 also demands that some government employees keep their faces uncovered in the exercise of their functions, a provision clearly meant to exclude women who choose to wear the niqab. Those affected include:
- Members of the National Assembly (MNAs)
- Elected Municipal officers except in certain Indigenous communities
- Personnel of elected officers
- Personnel of MNAs
- Personnel of the Lieutenant Governor
- Commissioners appointed by the government under the Act respecting public inquiry commissions
- Persons appointed by the government to exercise a function within the administrative branch including arbitrators whose name appears on a list drawn up by the Minister of Labour in accordance with the Labour Code
- Peace officers who work mainly in Quebec
- Physicians, dentists, and midwives
- Persons recognized as home childcare providers
- Anyone else designated by the National Assembly
- Employees of government departments
- Any bodies receiving government funds
- People and bodies appointed in accordance with the Public Service Act
- Employees of municipalities, metropolitan communities, and intermunicipal boards, and municipal and regional housing bureaus with the exception of some in Indigenous communities
- Employees of Public Transit Authorities
- Employees of school boards established under the Education Act
- Employees of public institutions governed by the Act respecting health services and social services
- Employees of bodies in which most of the members are appointed by the National Assembly
- Institutions accredited under the act respecting the Ministere des Relations Internationales
- Private family-type resources governed by the Act Respecting Health Services
In addition to barring certain government employees from having their face covered in the exercise of their functions, the law also requires certain people to show their faces in order to receive government services “where doing so is necessary to allow their identity for security reasons.”
The law does make an exception where the face is covered for health reasons, a handicap, or requirements tied to their job. The law also says that there will be “no accommodation or derogation or adaptation,” which means there are no exceptions anywhere.
Bill 21 not only alters the Quebec Charter of Human Rights to exonerate the government from open acts of discrimination, it also applies the Notwithstanding Clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Notwithstanding Clause allows governments to bypass articles 2 and articles 7 to 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms simply by including in a discriminatory law an article stating that said law applies notwithstanding the Charter.
Articles 2 of the Canadian Charter deal with fundamental freedoms including the freedom of conscience and religion, and articles 7 to 15 deal with legal rights including the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person, equal treatment before the law, and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Article 30 of Bill 21 states that it applies notwithstanding these articles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though the Notwithstanding clause has a failsafe in it requiring the government to renew the law in five years or open itself to legal challenges when that time expires.
That said, all hope is not lost. The law is currently tabled, meaning that the National Assembly has begun to consider it. It has not, as of the publication of this article, passed.
That means there is still time to resist. If you value our province’s protections against discrimination, contact your members of the National Assembly and pressure them as you never have before.
Point out that Quebec has a labour shortage and alienating and barring people won’t work to solve it. Tell them that the scores lawsuits they’ll face will be more expensive than any benefit they hope to gain if the Bill passes.
Tell them that if they want a truly secular state, all towns and streets and institutions bearing the names of Catholic saints should be changed immediately. Let them know how ridiculous their position is.
The fight is only over if we the people give up, so keep fighting.
Featured Image: Screengrab of François Legault defending Bill 21 in a Facebook video