A toxic mix of arrogance and fear: Bill 21 fight is not over

‘The government fought to legislate women’s bodies, and it won’
Photo: Cold, Indrid
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“Nothing will ever be the same again.”

She said it a second time to let the words sink in. A long silence came over us. The line went dead.

Hanadi Saad isn’t a quiet person. In her public fight against Quebec’s religious symbols ban, Saad has been subjected to all manner of violence, but she never once held her tongue.

“One man told me it would be halal for him to rape me,” said Saad, who came to Canada from Lebanon during the civil war 30 years ago. Her activism has earned her death threats, she’s been told to “go back home” and twice had men try to assault her after protests against the controversial law.

After Tuesday’s Quebec Superior Court ruling reaffirmed the most controversial provisions of Bill 21, Saad was at a bit of a loss.

“What is there left to say,” she said. “The government fought to legislate women’s bodies and it won. That’s a strange thing to say in 2021. We’ll have to see what the Supreme Court of Canada says.

“I guess the one thing I would say is we know where we stand now. We know Muslim women are officially second-class citizens in Quebec.”

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Justice Marc-André Blanchard ruled that the government has the right to force Muslim teachers to remove their headscarves at work and fire them if they refuse. He didn’t have much of a choice, given that the Coalition Avenir Québec government invoked the notwithstanding clause of the constitution to pass Bill 21.

The clause suspends religious liberties and large swaths of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has been invoked just 15 times in Canadian history and its use by the CAQ was a tacit admission that Bill 21 would, under normal circumstances, be laughed out of a courtroom.

But while his hands were tied, Blanchard did not mince words in his 242-page ruling, quoting a previous judgement to describe the CAQ’s approach to the law as “morally repugnant.”

“The exclusion of the mere possibility that someone could have a career they’re qualified for goes beyond simply denying them an opportunity,” he wrote. “It conveys the message that people who exercise their faith do not deserve to fully participate in Quebec society.”

The secularism law prevents public school teachers, police and other authority figures from wearing religious garb on the job. While it ostensibly applies to all religions, the debate in Quebec has centered on the right of Muslim women to wear a hijab at the head of a classroom.

“I guess freedom of religion only applies if you speak English.”

After it was passed in 2019, Bill 21 was challenged by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the English Montreal School Board and a handful of other plaintiffs. Only employees of the EMSB and people seeking elected office managed to eke out a win Tuesday.

The school board argued that Bill 21 violates the education rights of minority language communities under Section 23 of the Charter. Those elected to the National Assembly are protected from Bill 21 under Section 3 of the Charter, which guarantees the right of any citizen to hold public office.

Neither of these sections are subject to the notwithstanding clause.

“I guess freedom of religion only applies if you speak English,” said one hijabi teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of online reprisals. “You are erasing visibly Muslim women from our classrooms, you are forcing women who want to participate in Quebec society to stay home instead of helping them integrate into your society.”

Premier François Legault called Tuesday’s ruling a “victory for all Quebecers,” but said he strongly disagrees that the EMSB should be exempt from Bill 21. His government has announced it will appeal the decision.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said they’ll be reading Blanchard’s ruling carefully before deciding how to proceed with an appeal of their own.

“It’s the nationalism of Maurice Duplessis, not René Lévesque.”

Over at the EMSB, Commissioner Julien Feldman said that while he’s glad the school board will be exempt from Bill 21, he’s afraid that much of the damage has already been done.

“This was adopted out of this conspiratorial worldview that Muslims are secretly trying to convert our children merely by practising their faith,” said Feldman. “It’s absurd, it’s an attack on Islam, it’s an attack on liberalism, it’s rooted in a conservative form of nationalism that puts a Christian worldview ahead of a rights-based nationalism.

“It’s the nationalism of Maurice Duplessis, not René Lévesque.”

While the lawyers regroup, most plaintiffs are either out of a job or severely limited in their professional lives.

It may not seem like it, but Hakima Dadouche is one of the lucky ones. Because of a grandfather clause built into Bill 21, she gets to keep her job as an elementary school teacher. But if Dadouche gets a promotion or changes school boards, she’ll have to choose between her hijab and the children she loves to work with.

“Still, I’m hopeful that in future hearings, justice will be done and we’ll have our rights restored just like all Quebecers.”

The other plaintiffs are similarly hemmed in: four Muslim women who work in the francophone sector must either find work in English or teach at a private school. Two Muslim lawyers cannot practise law in a public courtroom at a time when there’s a shortage of Crown prosecutors in Quebec. Some wonder whether it’s time to leave the province they call home.

No matter what happens at the Supreme Court, where this case is all but certain to end up, the debate over Bill 21 has alienated hundreds of thousands of Quebecers and shown a level of contempt for civil rights that should give us all pause.

When the CAQ tabled their religious symbols ban two years ago, Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said her government would be prepared to send in armed police officers to remove hijabi women from our classrooms if they refused to comply. She walked back that statement the following day, but it’s telling that Guilbault’s first instinct was the use of brute force to trample charter rights.

This is not about religious neutrality. It’s about a government so uncertain of the strength of its ideas that it would impose them using every dirty trick in the book. It’s about having the power to tell people who don’t look like us that they do not belong in this place they’ve chosen as their home.

It is the same toxic mix of arrogance and fear that the British used to justify their assimilationist policies against New France. It is the same bigoted paternalism that led to the creation of residential schools in Canada:“Kill the Indian, save the child.” Now it is Quebec’s turn to wield power like a bludgeon, erasing a woman’s identity to rescue her.

I think back to what Saad said when we last spoke on the phone. It haunts me because even if Bill 21 is eventually overturned, she’s right.

“Nothing will ever be the same again.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.

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