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Survey results on the impact of Quebec’s Bill 21 are sad, but not surprising

“The study confirms what many of us feared: Bill 21 has worsened perceptions of religious minorities while making those minorities feel marginalized in their own home.”

A just-released study on the discourse, perceptions and impacts of Bill 21 on religious minorities in Quebec is currently making the rounds. The findings lend considerable weight to criticism of the legislation by pointing to the clear causal relationship between disdain of some religions and support for Bill 21, as well as offering damning proof of the damage the legislation has done to overall feelings of acceptance and well being among religious minorities in Quebec. 

In other words, the study confirms what many of us feared would happen all along: Bill 21 would worsen social attitudes and perceptions of religious minorities among the majority while making minorities feel marginalized and “othered” in their own home. 

This is the most extensive study conducted of religious minority communities affected by Bill 21 (Muslims, Jews and Sikhs), measuring their experiences and perceptions of the Quebec climate since the legislation was enacted. The results are derived from a combined study of a Léger survey of the Quebec population as a whole and an Association of Canadian Studies (ACS) survey of religious minority groups merged and weighted by Léger. In the researchers’ own words, the enquiry provides “a window into the interplay between public discourse, popular perceptions and experienced impacts around Bill 21 in Quebec.”

I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the study because it offers access to the opinions, perceptions and experiences of both majority and minority Quebecers and gives insight into Quebecers’ views of religions and what motivates support for and opposition to the legislation. It makes it quite clear that perception, rather than reality, is operating for some of the decision-making. 

Most importantly, it measures the law’s impacts on religious communities impacted by the law, including their sense of prejudice, discrimination, acceptance, exposure to hate, safety, citizen engagement, fulfillment, wellbeing and hope for their children’s future.

Bill 21 not conducive to minorities’ sense of belonging

I believe Bill 21 to be deeply counterproductive to social cohesion and people’s sense of belonging. Not surprisingly, the study’s results show that majorities in all three religious communities surveyed report a decline in their sense of acceptance as full-fledged members of Quebec society, with the most marked deterioration found among Muslim women (82.9%) and Sikh men (86.7%), the two groups most impacted by Bill 21 across the board. 

I mean, what did we think would happen? Isn’t it only natural that being made to feel like you don’t truly belong unless you adhere to certain limited and exclusionary definitions of what constitutes a “real” Quebecer only serves to alienate people, make them feel like they aren’t part of the whole and that they aren’t seen as equal and valued members of society? 

There is a very real human cost to this legislation profoundly affecting many Quebecers, and while some of its supporters may choose to ignore it as inconsequential, the research that is emerging points to the catastrophic consequences of Bill 21 that makes Quebec’s religious minorities feel unvalued, unwanted and unwelcome. 

Gender equality? Pas tant que ça… 

Most supporters of Bill 21 insist that the legislation is meant to ensure gender equality, yet curiously enough for legislation that insists it’s about defending women’s rights, survey results show that more men than women support the legislation. Those silly women and their silly female brains… they never know what’s best for them. Then again, maybe they do. 

Even more revealing, support declines considerably among younger Quebec women. As can often be seen on social media when pundits or politicians insist on talking for Muslim women instead of talking to Muslim women, a perception exists that those who wear religious symbols like the hijab are submissive and brain-washed, when in fact these women are practising their own free will to wear what they consider important to them. 

This stark contradiction between an overwhelmingly negative public perception by Quebec’s majority of religious minorities (most of which have never been in contact or ever spoken with a Muslim woman) and these women’s daily realities continues to confuse many, as Muslim women are routinely instrumentalized, marginalized and attacked by politicians and pundits for their own self-serving agendas or simply because these folks refuse to acknowledge that their skewed perceptions or valid concerns about other countries’ theocracies may not apply and cannot be translated to these women’s own reality here. 

The legislation has so normalized Islamophobia and public disdain for the hijab in Quebec that the mere sight of a woman wearing one in an advertisement for HEC Montreal is enough to get certain pundits riled up, as they pretend-fight for “women’s rights,” defending the woman’s “right” not to be allowed a differing opinion or way of life. I can’t imagine the frustration of being a Muslim woman and being repeatedly told you don’t know what’s best for you by a bunch of men intent on steamrolling through your convictions and personal opinions on their way to “save” you. Feminism never looked so white and Eurocentric.

Neutrality in unequal measure

Neutrality is another one of the values that supporters insist is protected by Bill 21. When critics point to the fact that “catho-laïcité” prevails in Quebec and symbols of the Catholic religion are privileged and not seen as a threat in any way, but merely valued as “patrimoine,” supporters tend to deny the observation. “All religions are treated equally,” they insist. “This is a secular place.” It’s a partial truth at best. 

Not only do Quebecers have very little contact or knowledge of other religions and members of those religious minority groups (a whopping 81% said that most of their friends share the same cultural background as them) but most importantly the study shows what many of us have already seen reflected daily on social media and in daily life. 

Quebecers “perceive religions and religious symbols along an ascending curve of negativity from Christianity to Judaism to Sikhism to Islam. This hierarchy of negativity is amplified among strong supporters of Bill 21 and the large gaps between supporters and opponents point to a causal link between negative opinions of non-Christian symbols and support for Bill 21.” 

In other words, while we live in a secular state and have been for a very long time, Christian symbols are seen as far less menacing and far less negatively than symbols of other religions. There is a direct and very clear link between negative associations of “foreign” religions and support for Bill 21. If one needs proof of the fact that Catholicism is unaffected by this legislation, the study comically reveals that more Catholics than atheists support Bill 21, which is pretty telling of which religion is least affected by this so-called secular legislation. 

Who’s a ‘real’ Quebecer? 

Another disturbing finding, more than 30% of Quebecers equate opposition to the law with disloyalty as a Quebecer. The CAQ and Premier Legault have undoubtedly contributed to this trend by publicly stating “This is how we live in Quebec” and treating opponents of Bill 21 as sworn enemies or as disloyal Quebecers stubbornly refusing to defend “Quebec values.” 

What this has created is a tendency to self-censor, with many religious minorities hesitant to comment or publicly share what their experiences have been like or even what they believe in. So, while popular white pundits are shouting from every possible rooftop and news outlet (on this side of the pond or across) that they’re in danger of being censored and their freedom of expression has been gravely compromised, what’s in fact happening is that majorities in all three minority religious communities surveyed reported a worsening in their readiness to express themselves freely in public. As is often the case with freedom of expression, what you don’t hear being said can’t be measured adequately. The majority doesn’t know what they’re never able to hear expressed. However, what they hear expressed over and over… and over again from mainstream platforms becomes their accepted reality. 

Divisive and counterproductive legislation 

A majority (55.9%) of Quebecers acknowledge that Bill 21 is dividing Quebecers, despite the government’s assurances that this legislation would put an end to these contentious debates and contribute to social harmony. Sadly, when it comes to Quebec’s religious minorities, the study shows Bill 21 has significantly contributed to a deteriorating climate in Quebec for those who identify as Muslim, Jewish and Sikh. 

The study identifies negative impacts that are “broad-ranging, disruptive and profound, reaching systemic proportions that are anything but moderate in four important dimensions of life: a) acceptability and acceptance, hate and safety, citizenship, and fulfillment, wellbeing and hope.” 

Muslims especially reported high levels of exposure to prejudicial comments, social stigmatization and marginalization, increased exposure to hate crimes, a decreased sense of safety in public, being treated unfairly by people in authority, and not feeling like full-fledged members of society. As a result, many also report a decreased willingness to participate in social and political life, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. When you don’t feel valued and accepted, you don’t feel like you’re in position to contribute fully to how your society will be shaped and function. You are also understandably hesitant to become the target of even more hate and attacks. 

A sense of hopelessness 

The saddest revelation for me was a decreased sentiment of hope and sense of well-being among religious minorities, particularly for their children and their futures. A shocking 83% of Muslim women surveyed said their confidence in their children’s future had deteriorated since Bill 21 became law. 

Not surprisingly, religious minorities felt this sense of decreased well being whether they were personally affected by the legislation or not. When your community is marginalized, the message is loud and clear for all minorities that unless you adhere to a certain look and certain behaviour, you will never be accepted as “one of us.” 

What many members of religious minorities and fervent opponents of Bill 21 warned would happen appears to be materializing. Three years later, many supporters of Bill 21 have no qualms or hesitation about publicly uttering disdainful, xenophobic, deeply racists comments about minority Quebecers’ religions and their identities. Legislation has certainly emboldened bigots and is on the way to altering social perceptions, normalizing for some this broad disdain of religion that routinely appears to target minorities in this province. 

Quebecers want the Supreme Court to weigh in

The most optimistic bit of news to be found in the survey is that, despite the Quebec government arguing that the National Assembly alone “incarnates Quebec’s collective will and is the sole arbiter of the law’s validity and legitimacy,” Quebecers are absolutely interested in determining whether Canada’s Supreme Court considers the law constitutional and respectful of human rights. 

A majority of 64.5% of Quebecers think it is important for the Supreme Court to rule on whether the law is discriminatory, including many who support Bill 21 unconditionally. If the courts determine that the law violates the charters, support for it would drop by 18% to below the majority mark (from 63.7 % to 47%). It’s further proof that court challenges to Bill 21 are both welcome by most Quebecers and necessary when minority rights are potentially being violated, despite what some pundits may insist is an outright attack on Quebec’s right to self-determination. 

Bill 21’s impact should not come as a surprise  

While many Bill 21 supporters will undoubtedly rush to dismiss or downplay the results of the study, there are numerous elements here that point clearly to how deeply destructive this legislation has been for Quebec’s religious minorities. 

Far from encouraging social cohesion and social harmony and appeasing tensions, as asserted by the CAQ, this legislation has divided Quebecers even more, emboldened religious bigots to unrestrainedly express themselves and sometimes even act on their bigotry, reinforced prejudices, and has made Quebec’s religious minorities feel unwanted and marginalized, unequal members of a society that should ultimately feel like their home. The results are sad, but not remarkable. 

It should come as no surprise that religious minorities in Quebec say they feel marginalized by Bill 21. To be told that you must dilute and erase who you are, who you were raised to be and how you identify in order to teach or serve the community as an authority figure is to be told there is something deeply wrong with you that must be rectified and ultimately removed. It’s insulting, deeply hurtful and, most importantly, profoundly ineffective for someone’s sense of belonging and genuine vivre-ensemble. This impact will be Bill 21’s sad legacy for years to come. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.