HASSAN: Yes, there are real problems with Bill 21

From Farzana Hassan:

The resurgent Bloc Quebecois is poised to perform well in the election under its articulate and pragmatic leader, Yves-Francois Blanchet. It has successfully pitched itself to younger voters by turning away from ageing entrenched separatists. Recent polls in Quebec put it behind only the Liberals, and first among Francophones.

Its broad mix of conservative and progressive policies makes it hard to pin down with standard left/right labels – which may be a virtue on polling day. Supporting climate change reform is very global and twenty-first century, but its demand for Quebec to have more say on immigration may be seen as traditional and isolationist. The same can be said for its support for the contentious Bill 21, the secularist ban on religious symbols for people in public office.

This bill is anathema to Liberals in Ottawa, but it is popular in Quebec. This is unsurprising, because France has a long history of encouraging private piety but public secularism. Provincial premier Francois Legault’s warning for outsiders not to tamper with the provincial bill is having some effect. Justin Trudeau is treading lightly in his opposition for fear of alienating voters there, though he has admitted the federal government “is not going to close the door on intervening at a later date.”

Of course, that means after the election, assuming a Liberal victory. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has also been delicately non-committal, expressing support for provinces to have the right to determine some of their own policies.

Bill 21 would prevent public employees from wearing any religious regalia such as yarmulkas, hijabs or turbans during working hours. It is likely to apply to public servants such as police officers, prison guards and public school teachers. It has taken plenty of criticism. For example, Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi – who is Muslim – made no attempt to conceal his outrage. He said, “It’s terrifying. It is flagrantly unconstitutional. It’s violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a really, really transparent way.” His city council concurred: it voted unanimously to back a motion condemning Quebec’s law.

Mayor Nenshi is partly right. I have expressed my abhorrence for certain kinds of religious garb in these pages many times. However, the only religious garments that should be banned are specifically those covering the face. In effect, these are just the niqab and burka, primarily for security reasons.

I am no fan of other religious regalia, because I would rather we proclaim ourselves simply to be human beings rather than Muslims or Jews or Sikhs, but this is surely a matter for individual preference rather than government interference – either from Ottawa or Montreal.

This bill could never be implemented in any equitable way, partly because of perceptions and definitions. Imagine that two government workers wear identical pendants. The first says she wears it because she likes the design, but the second wears it because it confirms her identity as a follower of the obscure faith the design symbolizes. Will only the second face a ban?

In any case, the bill’s future looks less than rosy. It is likely to be legal rather than legislative snags that prevent it from gaining traction any time soon. Quebec’s Court of Appeal is already hearing a challenge which claims the bill is unconstitutional, and others have been lodged. It seems nothing will come of Bill 21.

Source: HASSAN: Yes, there are real problems with Bill 21

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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