Anti-racism

Open letter calls on QS to change stance on religious symbols ban

Québec solidaire should stand against discrimination enacted in the name of secularism, but it cannot do so while clinging to the outdated recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor report
Photo: Denis Hébert

The following open letter was sent to Québec solidaire MNAs and other party officials on March 9, 2019, with 130 signatures. The French version has been published here.

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We are writing to you to express our concern about Québec solidaire’s position on religious symbols worn by public servants, which we believe needs to be revised urgently. It is essential that the party oppose any and all bans on religious symbols and reject the discriminatory politics behind them.

The Coalition Avenir du Québec’s proposed ban on religious symbols for public employees in positions of authority represents a grave threat to civil liberties and human rights. It also represents a dangerous deformation of the concept of secularism, where religious neutrality of the state is defined not by how public servants act but instead by what they wear. This policy feeds upon and reinforces the toxic climate of anti-Muslim racism that has developed in Quebec over the past decade. The fight against the CAQ’s religious symbols ban promises to be the first of many major battles during the next four years.

In the current political context, a strong and unequivocal response from QS is necessary. Unfortunately, the party is in a weak position to oppose the CAQ on this issue, hampered by its embrace of the Bouchard-Taylor “consensus.” CAQ leader François Legault and his ministers have presented their policy as a reasonable extension of the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations, claiming that they want to go only a little further. Clearly, the Bouchard-Taylor report’s fine distinction between “coercive authority” and “authority” more broadly defined offers no defence against demagogy.

More fundamentally, on the question of religious symbols there is no consensus — even among the report’s authors. Charles Taylor has repudiated the report’s call for a ban on religious symbols worn by judges, police officers and prison guards, and most jurists agree that any such blanket ban, whether Bouchard-Taylor or the CAQ’s “Bouchard-Taylor plus,” will be ruled unconstitutional.

Many in the party defend Bouchard-Taylor on the grounds of political expediency rather than principle. They hope that once a secularism law restricting religious symbols in the public sector is passed, this uncomfortable issue will go away. Yet the example of France should serve to dispel such illusions. Since 2004 when hijabs were banned in public schools, a proliferation of other bans and restrictions on religious symbols in the public sphere has gone hand in hand with the spread of racism and the rise of the far right.

As Taylor recognized in the aftermath of the tragic Sainte-Foy massacre, the report’s call for restrictions on religious symbols had the opposite of its intended effect: it further stigmatized minorities and encouraged increasingly uninhibited expressions of intolerance and racism, including violent hate crimes. As was the case with the “reasonable accommodations” debate and the Charte des valeurs, the CAQ’s proposed ban is opening the door to yet another upsurge of hate speech and xenophobia.

The party’s spokespeople must have the courage to speak out against the racism that underpins this false debate, to “call a spade a spade,” as Amir Khadir put it in an editorial published on the one-year anniversary of the Sainte-Foy massacre. So far, QS has not contested the barely concealed racism of the CAQ’s policy, putting the party out of step with the province’s growing anti-racist movement. Many activists were confused and dismayed by Manon Massé’s comments, made shortly before the October 7 anti-racist march, which appeared to undermine the organizers’ critique of Legault and the CAQ’s proposed ban.

QS should be a natural ally of the anti-racist movement. Many expect QS to take a welcoming position towards immigrants and embrace diversity as a source of enrichment to Quebec society. The party’s declaration of principles states that it is “essential” to support the struggle against racism and intolerance. And QS has long prided itself on its close relationship with social movements, acting to relay and amplify their demands.

Québec solidaire should maintain that it is the state that bears the responsibility of ensuring secularity, not its employees. It should vigorously contest the warped definition of “secularism” put forward by the identitaire right and speak out against the false idea that hijab-wearing Muslim women and other religious minorities are a threat to our values or institutions. It should unite with the anti-racist movement and the teachers’ unions and vow to fight this law, both in the National Assembly and in the streets. And it should stand against any and all discriminatory bans enacted in the name of secularism. But it cannot adopt such a stance while its spokespeople and parliamentary representatives cling to the outdated recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor report.

We are encouraged by the party’s decision to hold an internal debate on this crucial issue. We hope you will add your voices to the growing number of people, in the party and in social movements, calling on Québec solidaire to adopt a new position adequate to the political circumstances.

In solidarity,

Sibel Ataoğul (Mercier), Corey Balsam (Gouin), Nikolas Barry-Shaw (Mercier), Mary Ellen Davis (Mercier), Jesse Greener (Taschereau), Mohamed S. Kamel, Nora Loreto (Taschereau), Ehab Lotayef (Westmount–Saint-Louis), Rushdia Mehreen (Mont-Royal Outremont), Dru Oja Jay (Mercier), Fabienne Presentey (Sainte-Marie Saint-Jacques), Maria Worton (Westmount-St-Louis), Scott Weinstein (Westmount-St-Louis), Sameer Zuberi

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