Bill 21: There’s nothing neutral about enforced neutrality

The story of a Sikh teacher leaving the province because of the legislation has revived debate and a load of hypocrisy.

As a new school year is about to begin and school boards are deciding whether they will comply with Bill 21 or not, a barrage of news articles on Amrit Kaur, a young Sikh Québécoise teacher who is leaving the province because of the legislation, has revived the debate on religious neutrality.

While many are lamenting the fact that qualified Quebec teachers feel compelled to leave their homes — during a time of severe teacher shortages, no less — because their rights are being violated, I see others on social media rejoicing that “religious extremists” are leaving.

It’s no secret that I’m not in favour of Bill 21. I find it simplistic, small-minded legislation that attacks non-existent problems and serves only to appease the fears and preconceived beliefs of people who distrust religion — primarily religions they know little about.  

In his 21 years with the English Montreal School Board, spokesperson Mike Cohen has never had to deal with a single incident of religious proselytism regarding a teacher wearing religious symbols, he recently revealed during an interview with Breakfast Television. “It’s simply never come up,” he said. And yet this legislation pretends to be the solution for this non-existent problem. And in the process, real people who’ve done nothing wrong are being profoundly affected.

What I abhor most about Bill 21, however, is its basis on the erroneous and, frankly, misguided belief that the appearance of neutrality is, de facto, neutrality. It’s predicated on the prejudiced notion that someone with visible religious symbols is a religious extremist slyly seeking out every opportunity to convert everyone in their line of vision to their faith; like a walking, talking billboard for Allah or Jehovah, if you will.

Isn’t it funny how no one seemed to care about crosses dangling from teachers’ necks — despite Quebec being secular for the better part of 60 years now — until non-Christian religious symbols started making their way into the public arena?

Some folks are simply unable to entertain the notion that you can be visibly religious and yet have no interest whatsoever in proselytizing or converting someone; that you can wear a hijab or a kippah and just go on about your business teaching, living your life, making dinner plans, raising your kids, catching a movie, dreaming of vacation time and hoping this construction comes to an end soon. You know… what every other Quebecer I know is doing.

“If you’re not a religious extremist,” Bill 21 proponents say, “it shouldn’t be all that difficult to simply remove your religious symbol from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then put it back on after work, right?”

Wrong. People are attached to what matters to them.

I live in a place where some folks feel that the mere utterance of a bilingual “Bonjour/Hi!” in downtown Montreal is seen as a grave insult and existential threat to Quebec’s francophone identity; an offence so odious it must be dealt with by throwing the gauntlet and a request for a duel at sunrise. And yet the very same pundits who get up in arms over this attack on their French identity are somehow unable to understand that asking someone to remove an essential element of who they are and how they identify is an affront to their dignity.

To be told that you must dilute and erase who you are, who you were raised to be, how you identify, in order to teach or serve the community as an authority figure is to be told there is something wrong with you that must be rectified, removed, exacted, altered, hidden away. It’s insulting, deeply hurtful, and, most importantly, profoundly ineffective.  

I’m a Greek Quebecer who has no real nationalist tendencies, and no particular desire to showcase my Greekness on a daily basis, but I can assure you that if government officials were to suddenly tell me that I had to hide that part of my identity from 9-5, I’d be dancing to Zorba the Greek every opportunity that came my way. It’s human nature to push back when pushed, to protect and defend an essential part of your identity when it’s being maligned and marginalized.  

Essentially, Bill 21 does nothing for true neutrality. It just ludicrously assumes that by simply removing ostentatious symbols of religion from the government and public sphere, neutrality has been achieved. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is just faux, superficial secularism, where people who don’t care about religious symbols are pretending that they can’t wear the religious symbols they never planned on wearing, in order to prevent the people who do care about religious symbols from wearing them, so the people suspicious of the latter feel pandered to.

As educator Shakil Choudhury says in Deep Diversity (a book I highly recommend for its ability to explain systemic racism and discrimination in very simple terms), “the power to define normal is one of the systemic powers generally invisible to dominant groups.”

The dominant group in this discussion is Quebec’s francophone majority, a group of people who are now predominantly atheist but were raised surrounded by symbols and power structures that are overwhelmingly Catholic, and as such are not fearful of them, even when they no longer have any use for them. Their “normal” are people who don’t wear any visible religious symbols. Their “abnormal” are people who do.

But true state secularism has nothing to do with the banning of religious symbols and it certainly doesn’t mean that people who don’t wear religious symbols are religiously or culturally neutral.

I was recently on a TV panel with a Quebec historian and educator to debate the merits of updating Quebec’s history curriculum and why it’s important that we ensure that it’s more transparent and inclusive.

The history teacher argued during our panel debate that racism is too marginal an issue in Quebec for it to be taught in class, that systemic racism does not exist here and that the far-right movement is not a problem for the province, despite the fact that La Meute, Atalante Quebec and other hate groups with neo-Nazi ties have been extremely active here. He also belittled Indigenous concerns. He routinely posts links on his Facebook page about hate and persecution against Christians, and how Muslim women should remove their hijabs, but because he doesn’t wear any visible religious signs, he is considered neutral and secular in the government’s eyes.

I left the panel profoundly disturbed that this man was teaching a white-washed version of history, completely disinterested in discussing marginalized perspectives. Is visual homogeneity and historical negationism really the best that we can do? Is this what an open society aspires to?

What if, instead of proselytizing, teachers who wear religious symbols are, in fact, teaching something else? That diversity and differences are not to be feared, but to be embraced. That the world is a place where people can come together despite their different backgrounds and beliefs. That, despite looking different, speaking with an accent or believing in religion, you can be competent, objective, capable, skilled, kind and have your students’ best interests at heart.

An entire generation is now going to grow up without ever seeing certain minorities in public authority positions. They will indirectly learn that these religious and cultural minorities are disqualified from positions of influence because there is something inherently wrong about the way that they look and live, and that religion is to inherently be feared.

I’m a devout atheist and I can tell you there’s absolutely nothing neutral about those beliefs. ■