Between the U.S. election keeping us in suspense for days and an unexpected gift of summer weather in November, you would be forgiven if you failed to notice a historic legal challenge currently underway in Quebec Superior Court, as lawyers argue the province’s Bill 21 is unconstitutional.
It has been a year and a half since the contentious legislation was rammed through by the CAQ using the notwithstanding clause. During this time, the Laicity Act marginalized and dashed the hopes and dreams of many Quebecers who wear religious symbols. Many Muslim women reluctantly walked away from flourishing careers they loved (or left the province) because they no longer felt welcome. Even with a grandfather clause allowing current public employees to remain in their positions, there is no possibility for advancement. How many people would remain in a position or a career in public service where they would be stuck in stasis for life… prevented from making a simple lateral move or unable to accept a well-deserved promotion?
Many believe this was precisely the government’s intent. Under the guise of secularism, to slowly extricate the bothersome, to squelch the unfamiliar and the foreign in the public sector, and to deprive Quebec minorities’ fundamental right of religious freedom of any public legitimacy and normalcy.
“From now on, you can retain visible signs of your religious faith at your own peril” was the clear message given by the government. There would be a price to pay for remaining true to your religious identity, and only a select few would be forced to pay it. It’s no wonder those affected by the legislation have been testifying this week about feeling “excluded from Quebec society” and “insulted.”
Freedom of expression for some
For all this constant talk of freedom of expression, free speech, freedom of conscience and people’s inalienable right to be and say who and what they need to, much of the recent rhetoric in Quebec has strangely been focused on academic freedom and the white majority’s obsession with the n-word. There seems to be scant mention of how all these sacrosanct and lofty ideals worth protecting and championing primarily come into play in a case such as Bill 21. “The majority wants it,” seems to be the constant justification. But, fundamentally, legal court challenges are not about ratifying the will of the majority, but primarily and duly protecting the rights of minorities.
In a strange twist of fate (primarily because it was the 50th anniversary of its invocation), I have recently been doing a lot of reading on the War Measures Act. It has been fascinating happenstance to observe the current fight for fundamental rights play out through the prism of my readings on a totalitarian law that violated Quebecers’ fundamental human and civil rights half a century ago. The reasoning then, as it is now for Bill 21, remains the same: an overwhelming majority supported it. Despite the protests of a select few at the time, the public mood demanded that Quebecers’ rights were denied for the “greater good” and the federal government, emboldened by majority support in Montreal, Quebec and Canada, followed through.
Fifty years later, I see many Quebec politicians and pundits demanding public apologies (rightfully so, I might add) for the-then clear violation of Quebec citizens’ rights, while being callously indifferent to the blatant violation of many minority Quebecers’ fundamental rights today. So, freedom of conscience and expression for some, but not for all, it would appear.
No participation, no problem!
The very same week the legal challenge against Bill 21 is taking place, the Quebec government officially withdrew from a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers. The meeting aims to discuss serious challenges to human rights in the country, among them the climate emergency, the lack of true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and systemic racism. It is expected that a common press release will be issued by all participating ministers following the meeting, recognizing the urgency to act on systemic racism.
Which immediately placed the CAQ in an awkward conundrum. Since the Quebec government refuses to recognize the existence of systemic racism, it would be hard-pressed to co-sign a declaration admitting the importance of fighting it. One cannot agree to fight what one does not acknowledge exists. Particularly when the “accusation” of systemic racism is so often used as “proof” by our provincial government of Quebec-bashing and “meddling” by the rest of Canada. If most everyone else is willing to sit down to tackle the issue, then maybe systemic racism is real and not some fake concept imported from the U.S. in a malicious ploy to “embarrass” us. Like I said, awkward.
Instead, Immigration, Francization and Integration Minister Nadine Girault was unceremoniously instructed to cancel her appearance. Amnesty International has called the Quebec government’s decision to abstain from participating “embarrassing” and “shameful.”
Pandering to majority prejudice
The two news events are not as unrelated as they may initially appear to be. Both Bill 21 and non-acknowledgment of systemic racism signify an almost pathological desire by the CAQ to deny a large swath of Quebecers their lived reality and their rights, while attempting to prioritize and pander to the majority’s comfort and, ultimately, its voting base. But if history has taught us anything, it is that minority rights and civil liberties can neither be ignored nor dismissed so easily. Minorities have a fundamental right and duty to contest and legally challenge a harmful-to-them law implemented by the majority. And a government interested in governing for all should not be politicizing that.
Experts are currently in court testifying that Bill 21 does significant and undeniable damage to people’s sense of belonging, marginalizing and stigmatizing groups that are already bearing the brunt of xenophobia and racism, and arguing the legislation is contrary to social cohesion and successful integration. Most importantly, it prioritizes the majority’s disdain and distrust of religion over Muslim women’s human and religious rights and access to employment. I continue to have a hard time understanding how a linguistic and cultural minority that has fought so hard for its own identity and its own rights within Canada remains so tone-deaf to similar demands by other minorities.
A hierarchy of citizens
During a walk a few days ago, I passed by a high school. A group of four teenage girls were laughing out loud at some inside joke that someone such as myself, who has long since graduated from high school, could not possibly hope to get.
They looked so joyfully oblivious to the world around them and its pandemic problems. They were just lost in that messy yet marvelous age where your feelings are amplified and your life both shrinks and expands depending on often random circumstances you rarely have the power to control.
I couldn’t help but notice that one of the teenage girls was wearing a hijab. Even though she was every bit a part of that diverse schoolyard full of Quebec teens, through no fault of her own, and despite whatever ambition, intelligence, scholarly effort and grades she possessed, she had already been designated a second-tier citizen by her own government and, by extension, society around her. Bill 21 has already told her that some dreams, some positions, some goals will be off-limits. Her identity has been deemed problematic and in need of erasure. Homogeneity at all costs.
The sky is not the limit for that teenage girl who wears the hijab, and many others like her — the very opposite of feminism and gender rights that Bill 21 supporters like to list as one of the justifications for their actions. She is less than. She will receive that message and so will every xenophobe and racist who will be emboldened by it.
People’s lived experiences of systemic discrimination and their fundamental rights are far too important to be debated or denied by majority consensus. And fundamental rights should never extend to denying others theirs. It is ultimately what this court challenge is all about. And ultimately what the Legault government refuses to see. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.