Quebec court’s action on Bill 21 isn’t an endorsement, it’s a condemnation

While Premier Legault makes glaringly hypocritical statements in California, challenges to his discriminatory law continue.

Last week, the Quebec Court of Appeal decided not to suspend Bill 21, Quebec’s religious symbols ban. For the moment, the province’s controversial secularism law will continue to be upheld, but constitutional challenges remain plentiful and the legal fight is far from over.

Given the legal complexity of what is being debated, the heated (and often, uninformed) conversations I continue to see play out on social media, and the celebrations by Bill 21 supporters, who seem to think the rejection of a temporary suspension equates to a roundabout validation of the legislation, I feel some clarifications are necessary.

The Court of Appeal’s decision not to suspend the legislation while it’s being challenged is not an endorsement of Bill 21. The 2-1 decision to abide by the provincial government’s use of the notwithstanding clause is neither tacit approval nor indication these judges support or sanction the law. Bill 21 has simply been allowed to stand until the (numerous) constitutional challenges against it are heard in Quebec Superior Court next year, with many constitutional lawyers quite confident this case will end up in the Supreme Court of Canada.

What the Court of Appeal did unequivocally conclude, however, is that the law is discriminatory. Its supporters can continue to defend it, but they can’t deny that all three judges acknowledged it causes “serious and irreparable harm” to those affected and that all three had valid criticisms of Bill 21. When referring to Muslim women who wear the hijab and wanted to apply for jobs as teachers, Judge Dominique Bélanger wrote it is “apparent” that those teachers’ fundamental rights are being violated. “Given the notwithstanding clause, the courts must abandon to their fate women graduates who are willing to work and who, for the sole reason that they wear the veil, have been denied access to a job for which they hold all the skills.”

After the ruling was announced, a Dawson teacher who had filed a complaint asking one of the judges to recuse herself from the Bill 21 proceedings because he believed her to be biased because she had declared herself a feminist (imagine thinking a belief in gender equality is a bias!) tweeted that he was “relieved” by the decision. I thought to myself, “Relieved? About what?” This law impacts absolutely nobody else, except those whose rights are currently being violated. Nothing in this man’s life changed the day this law was legislated, and nothing will change the day it’s repealed. With absolutely no factual evidence pointing to proselytism efforts by people in authority wearing religious symbols, the only obvious bias I’ve seen so far seems to stem from people projecting their anti-religious sentiments and xenophobic assumptions on to them.

One can claim the reasons for Bill 21 are good and noble. That the legislation’s sole goal is to remove all traces of religion from the public sector and erase all appearance of religious bias from the public sphere, but impact always matters more than intent. And the impact has been catastrophic for innocent Quebecers who have done nothing wrong. 

“Today’s devastating decision brings no relief to the teachers who cannot work in their professions, the parents worried about supporting their children and the individuals concerned for their future. This suffering has been imposed for no other reason than what one wears, how one practises religion or the fact that one looks ‘different’ than the majority,” declared Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Equality Program Director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

And while we’re busy debating the serious harm this legislation is causing to our fellow Quebecers, what is Premier Legault doing? He’s over in California, as the head of a government that legislated discrimination in the name of “religious neutrality,” joyfully declaring, “All French Canadians are Catholic.” Eh, misère…

If your goal is to promote and legislate religious neutrality when it comes to all state affairs, why exactly do you, as the Premier representing this so-called neutral state, feel the need to tell the Governor of California that you’re Catholic? You can’t demand that religious minorities censor and silence their displays of religious belief for your cafeteria-style form of selective secularism, and then proudly walk around displaying your faith like a badge of honour during a foreign meeting! It’s incredibly hypocritical. How can you openly discriminate against people because you don’t want them to “push their religion” on others yet feel no qualms about doing exactly that on an official state trip? I’ll tell you how: blind spots. This is exactly how majority bias subconsciously affects public opinion and public policy.

When columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté, in defending Premier Legault’s gaffe writes, “We are all Catholic, even if we believe we aren’t,” he is inadvertently revealing the crux of the majority’s hypocrisy. Bill 21 supporters may claim they have no preference or love for religion, and that their only goal is to erase it from the public sphere, but it’s not true.

There are public religious symbols in Quebec that clearly do not offend (you can see them on mountain tops, on the walls of hospitals, schoolrooms, courtrooms, street signs, public buildings, etc.) and are conveniently seen as historical, cultural, nationalist — essentially harmless. “It’s just part of who we are…” people shrug. But how are symbols of religious minorities perceived, even though they mean the exact same innocuous thing to them? They’re seen as radical, dangerous, biased, non-conformist, a provocation, narrow-mindedness, religious zealotry, proof of resistance to successful integration, anti-Quebec.

What resembles us most is given the benefit of the doubt, and what is different is seen with suspicion. There is no absolute objectivity in life. Our vision of the world is shaped by personal filters. I will repeat what Shakil Choudhury wrote in Deep Diversity: “The power to define normal is one of the systemic powers generally invisible to dominant groups.” This sentence encapsulates and explains everything that is wrong with Bill 21 and everything the majority is incapable of seeing, precisely because they are the majority.

Whatever the intent, the impact has been harm. Those who wear religious symbols are routinely targets of harassment and discrimination by emboldened bigots who think this legislation is thinly veiled state-sanctioned Islamophobia. Bill 21 supporters get to pretend Quebec only has the noblest of intentions to enforce secularism that will undoubtedly protect us all, while dropping off their kids at schools named after Christian saints, located on streets named after, you guessed it… Christian saints, with Christian crosses nailed to the walls.

We get to read pundits in Quebec’s most popular newspaper tell us that there’s a “war on Christmas” and that Quebec is committing “suicide identitaire” because Christians have been shamed by the “regressive left” and “multicultural logic that hates the West” (don’t ask… I have no clue what they’re talking about either…) into not celebrating Christmas anymore. This, while there’s a Christmas tree in every office, every department store, every government building and practically every corner in the city, an annual Santa Claus parade downtown, official days off work commemorating the birth of little Jesus, and I have seen at least 20 Christian choir events go by on my timeline in the past week alone. In the meantime, the incredible incongruency of saying one thing while doing another never seems to shame anyone in government.

While many Bill 21 supporters might prefer to think of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, currently fighting Bill 21, as some anti-Quebec, anti-French association sent by multicultural Canada to uphold the bible of diversity, it’s actually a national non-partisan, non-profit organization that works to protect the rights and freedoms of all people in Canada — including those in Quebec. The CCLA was one of the few groups in Canada that protested the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970 by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in response to the October Crisis. It’s not anti-Quebec; it’s anti-discrimination. 

That dreaded Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is repeatedly invoked as a reason for this legal fight, and that’s so often vilified and looked upon suspiciously by pro-Bill 21 folks? It’s done wonders outside of Quebec, protecting the rights of francophones to have their children educated in French. That Charter is the reason why many francophone parents in the ROC were able to challenge unjust treatment and have the right to manage and control minority language schools, and ensure adequate public funding is provided for them.

For some people, sadly, how and when they choose to defend minority rights often depends on whether they identify as one. French Quebecers have often been the minority throughout their collective history, but they are behaving like a typical majority right now, with little regard for the rights of minority groups currently being violated.

Nothing is as black and white as some might have you believe. And while the intent for secularism might indeed be a noble goal for some, it’s naïve to believe that one can achieve Bill 21’s selective secularism without trampling on people’s fundamental rights. It’s why both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms have been created — to precisely protect against the tyranny of the majority.

No matter what the intent might be with Bill 21, it’s becoming clear that the impact has been devastating to our fellow Quebecers and to Quebec’s social cohesion. Knowing this, I don’t know how people can continue to support this law in any meaningful way. ■