Bill 21 in Québec: A Solution in Search of a Problem
The few citizens who insist on wearing religious symbols are not harbingers of some looming clerical restoration.
Photo: Ivanoh Demers, Radio-Canada
The national debate about laicity and Bill 21, adopted in the province of Québec in June 2019, really boils down to one slippery question: does wearing a religious symbol constitute a form of proselytism, meaning an attempt to convert others to one’s beliefs? If the answer is yes, then, indeed, a public servant in position of authority should not be allowed to wear a Muslim head scarf, a Jewish skullcap, a Sikh turban or a Catholic cross while on duty. No law protects the right to actively practice one’s religion while at work. However, if the answer is no, as I argue is the case, then Bill 21 is clearly overreaching, making a fuss about a non-existent problem.
Proselytism is already banned from public service and public schools in most liberal democracies, and rightly so. Even in countries with no radical separation of church and state (think of Great Britain, Denmark or Greece), judges, police officers, and even school teachers would be reprimanded if they used their position to champion a personal “cause” of any sort. A culture of rights requires a certain neutrality in the way government interact with its citizens.
I suspect that “causes” are not born equal in that respect. A teacher probably wouldn’t get into trouble for wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt in the classroom. Few causes can be considered as similarly universal and uncontroversial: environmental sustainability, human rights defined broadly, perhaps animal rights. Taking side on almost any other issue would be considered potentially divisive, a matter of opinion rather than common good, and would therefore be unwelcomed in the neutral territory of public service.
It goes without saying that judges, police officers, and school teachers must not cover their face, or use their position to propagate their faith.
No wonder it never happens.
The only place where Bill 21 could make a difference, and in my view not for the better, is the classroom. Previous recommendations to preserve secularism in the province, like the Bouchard-Taylor commission’s in 2008, concentrated on public workers who hold “coercive” state power—police officers and judges, most notably—but leaving teachers alone.
The teaching position is where one finds more women than men—even more so in kindergarten, where the law does not apply. Bill 21 is gender neutral. For the president of the Quebec Secular Movement, Daniel Baril: “If a Muslim can teach and not his sister who wears the hijab, it is because their religion, not secularism, imposes different social standards on men and women.” Maybe so, but it is a rather stubborn fact that this law affects women disproportionately—Muslim women, to be precise. That confers to this issue a complexity beyond the religious dimension.
In Québec and in France, where a one-size-fits-all ideal of citizenship prevails (the French also like to legislate on nearly everything), one is more likely to hear progressive voices denouncing those different social standards as oppressive for women and calling for government action. A common argument is that many Muslim women do not have a choice but to abide by patriarchal and therefore discriminatory norms. Contrastingly, multiculturalism (though not bilingualism) is a quasi-secular religion in English Canada. In that perspective, group rights, especially ethno-cultural ones, are paramount. The die is cast: Anglos call Quebeckers racist; Quebeckers retort that religion is not race; the first invoke freedom of religion, the latter, freedom from religion.
Significantly, there appears to be only one case of a teacher being removed from her position (and reassigned to another job) for wearing a hijab, since the adoption of the law: substitute teacher Fatameh Anvari. She was hired by the Western Quebec School Board, an English-language school district based in Gatineau, after the adoption of the law, and therefore could not be exempted from its application. Was her hiring a provocation? It certainly looks like it, but that’s fair game. Be that as it may, many Quebeckers who supported the law may not have fully appreciated that it could mean firing a schoolteacher for covering her hair. I can only speculate that for many (most?) of them, wearing a scarf, even as a religious practice, does not amount to proselytizing at all, and indeed there is no evidence that Anvari, an English teacher, was consciously doing that. Therefore, secularism defined as absence of proselytism was not compromised.
The Révolution Tranquille
The best argument in favour of Bill 21 is that Québec, more than any other province, was run by the Church until a few decades ago. Getting rid of the curés was a necessary step to achieve social, economic, cultural and political emancipation in the province. La laïcité was hard won, and must be protected, the argument goes. Making an exception for Islam—let’s face it, the main target of this law—makes no sense, plus it could be a Trojan horse for the return of religion as a dominant public force in the province.
I understand and respect that position. But being born and raised in the province, I never experienced the Révolution tranquille as such a bruising battle against the Church. Post-war demographic explosion and the ensuing countercultural movement in North America and Europe pushed the Church out of the picture, promptly but “quietly,” without much resistance. Churches were full, then they were empty, and that was that. The few citizens who insist on wearing religious symbols are not harbingers of some looming clerical restoration. Isn’t Québec, after all, the most secular society in North America?
The Hidden Consensus on Secularism
A rather large minority of Quebeckers oppose Bill 21, and an equally sizeable minority of Canadians from outside the province apparently supports its main tenets, if one can trust the polls. On the one hand, opponents to Bill 21 do not seem to be cheering for religious proselytism in the public sector. Nobody is talking about the right for a judge or a teacher to wear a burqa at work. On the other hand, most Quebeckers conceivably want secularism to be protected by the law, as is found in “normal” European countries like France, Belgium, Portugal or Germany. Arguably, most Canadians want public servants to refrain from pushing their own personal beliefs on people to whom they are paid to provide a service. In short, I suspect that citizens across the country agree more than they think they do.
Every profession has its own code of conduct, concerning both dress and behaviour. One cannot imagine a judge showing up in court wearing a Erin O’Toole mask, a large cross, or a mini skirt. If and when a problem arises, it can be dealt with professionally, in the workplace, without blowing a nation-wide political fuse over it. Québec politicians who have been whipping up this fake crisis for a decade should be the ones covering their faces.