March 28 was a pivotal day in the history of Quebec and Canada. With the introduction of Bill 21 by Quebec’s CAQ government, social harmony in the province and in the country risks being forever altered.
The legislation seeks to ban certain public sector employees from displaying any religious symbols while at their workplace. The Quebec government’s justification for Bill 21 rests on its misinterpretation of the principles of laïcité, or secularism.
According to Bill 21, the secularism of the state rests on four principles: the separation of state and religion, the religious neutrality of the state, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. It states that the Parliament, government and judicial institutions are bound to adhere to these principles.
I agree with these principles — but the bill would not achieve any of them. In fact, application of the law would result in the opposite.
Separation of state and religion. When the state tells someone there will be consequences for following an aspect of their religion, then the state is no longer keeping itself separate from religion.
Religious neutrality of the state. Some religions have several different visible “symbols” while others have nearly none. Further, some religions consider what the law refers to as “symbols” to be core to their belief. For many Muslim women — the major target of the bill — covering the hair is not a religious symbol as is a medallion with a religious connotation around their necks, but an integral part of being a Muslim. Thus the state is not being neutral and is not standing at an equal distance from all religions.
Equality of all citizens. How could such a law claim that it abides by, or enforces, the equality of all citizens when it does exactly the opposite by denying public jobs and income to certain groups of citizens for a reason not at all related to their qualifications or ability to perform the work itself. This is blatant inequality.
Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. When the state imposes restrictions of any kind or magnitude on a person because of their religious convictions, how could the state, in this case, claim to support freedom of conscience and freedom of religion? Putting a cost on following a certain religion is a limitation on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. This law is, in fact, an attempt to influence people to not follow certain convictions.
Bill 21 stands against all values of secularism but the damage it will cause, and is already causing simply by being introduced, goes far beyond making a mockery of secularism and the notion of neutrality of the state.
In the wake of an increasing number of massacres of innocent civilians, including Christchurch, New Zealand last month and Quebec City in 2017, it has become clear what effect far-right populist and nationalist politicians and political movements have on the actions of extremists. Such political views and actions may appear benign or disguise themselves as defending secularism, as in the case of Bill 21, when they are really aimed at gaining votes and expanding the support base of those who adopt them among certain segments of society. They also have a huge influence on weak-minded and violent-prone individuals and indirectly lead to violence and the deaths of innocent people all around a world where borders are no more a barrier to the spread of hate.
The debate and discussion around Bill 21, even before its tabling, have had negative effects in Quebec society and pitted groups of people against one another, thus damaging social harmony. This will only increase in the days and weeks to come as the bill is being debated and discussed in Parliament, the media and society.
This said, silence about such a bill cannot be the solution now that it is tabled to become law. We cannot just accept such an injustice in the hope that a lack of debate will help reduce the danger to society and to innocent people. If we are quiet and the bill passes smoothly, its passing will have the same effects, unfortunately.
If this legislation passes, it will encourage superiority complexes among many and will give power to xenophobes and bigots, in addition to creating a two-tier society which cannot be accepted in a democracy like ours. After all, if the state is itself xenophobic (clearly the law targets primarily newer immigrants who some view as outsiders) and discriminatory (the law, as shown, discriminates against certain groups of citizens), wouldn’t that encourage those who want to act on their ill feelings towards certain groups to do so?
There is another concern: the effect this bill will have on the large numbers of young people from the targeted groups who will lose the opportunity to be employed in jobs they may be already training to do. How will that affect harmony and coexistence in our society?
I plead to the wisdom and the best judgment of everyone in our society, not only those affected or related to communities that will be directly affected. A strong outcry against Bill 21 and a campaign of outreach and openness within Quebec society is the only way out for us all, at this crucial point in time where so much is at stake.