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Posts Tagged ‘Secularism/ Laicity’

A new Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21 (2019), is now international news as far away as Europe and the Middle East. The prime proponent of the law, Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, achieved infamy in early July 2019 when he tweeted a picture of himself at a summit in France with Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner who was nearly killed by the Taliban for her activism championing education for girls. Asked on Twitter whether Yousafzai could teach in Quebec while wearing her head scarf, M. Roberge said ‘no’ — she’d have to take it off – an assessment later backed-up by Premier Francois Legault.  Anyone who aspires to teach in Quebec, including the world-renowned author and teacher Malala, is forbidden from wearing religious symbols or religious attire in the state schools.

Quebec’s Bill 21 is a prime exhibit which illustrates how Quebec is distinct from the rest of Canada. because it deals with the matter of secularism, laicite  (laicity), or the separation of religion from government.  Over the past two decades, it has emerged and dominated political discourse and produced convulsions affecting recently arrived immigrant families and Anglo-Quebeckers accustomed to periodic surges of Quebec nationalist feeling. The fierce debate has also inflamed passions and aroused Islamophobia, intensely felt by Muslim women and girls in the school system.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) plan to affirm the secular character of the Quebec state is not really new, but a continuation of a project first initiated by a previous Parti Quebecois government. It originated as an off-shoot of the “Charter of Values” unveiled in 2013 by Premier Pauline Marois and the PQ.  On March 27, 2019, in the most recent attempt to legislate a vision of secularism in the province, the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 (2019), “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” The legislation, passed on June 16, 2019, bans public servants in a list of jobs from wearing religious symbols at work. Such restrictions not only apply to schoolteachers and principals, but directly affect students in universities, colleges, and schools planning on seeking future employment in the public sector.

Origins of Quebec Secularism Policy

The recent debate over secularism in Quebec has its roots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. An earlier controversy involving a Montreal school board decision to ban a 12-year-old Sikh boy, Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school demonstrated the potential for social disruption. Early in 2007, a small hamlet in the heart of French Quebec, Herouxville, introduced a “code of conduct” for immigrants and brought a simmering “cultural accommodation crisis” to a boil. Talk radio shows, op-ed pages, and kitchen conversations were ignited by very public debates about whether a YMCA on in Montreal’s Mile End should frost its gym windows at the request of a next-door Hasidic synagogue or whether publicly-funded daycares should serve halal meats.

Confronting a raging culture war in January 2007, Quebec’s Liberal government appointed a Consultative Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by prominent intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their May 2008 report waded into the sensitive questions about how immigrants can or should integrate with Quebec society, and how to uphold the ideal of secularism, while accommodating non-conforming religious practices. The Bouchard-Taylor report recommended removing a large crucifix from the Quebec National Assembly, abandoning prayers before municipal council meetings, and barring civil servants in positions of authority — like judges, police officers and prosecutors — from wearing religious symbols at work. It also attempted to draw the line at the school system. Students and teachers, as well as nurses, should be allowed to wear religious attire like the hijab and turban to school.

The CAQ’s Bill 21 goes one step further in reaffirming and enforcing secularism in the public sector. Unlike previous legislation, it stipulates exactly which professions would be restricted from wearing religious symbols, including teachers and principals. It is also more court-proof – because it invokes the notwithstanding clause to protect it from being struck down by courts for violating the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. While Bill 21 does not target any one religion specifically, Charles Taylor has expressed grave reservations about its potential impact on visible religious minorities. In his April 2019 testimony during QNA hearings on the bill, he reversed his previous position. Since the horrific late January 2017 Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre mass shooting, he claims any change must be considered in the context of a society “full of Islamophobia.” 

Impact of Quebec’s Bill 21 on Society and Education

Noisy public debates over Bill 21 and mass protests by teachers, students and affected public officials have failed to alter Quebec public opinion. , According to a May 2019 public opinion poll, a majority of Quebeckers, (63 per cent) favoured the measure restricting religious symbols, and of that cohort, 88 per cent showed signs of anti- Islamic sentiment. The only age group that broke with the trend was youth, aged 18 to 25, consisting mostly of university/college students and recent graduates.

Passage of Bill 21 made Quebec the first jurisdiction in North America to enact legislation enforcing a religion-free dress code. Quebec’s largest school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, lined up with the Quebec English school boards in refusing to implement Bill 21 without consultation or modification. Most of the urban metropolitan boards serve diverse populations, including Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students.

The Quebec government of Premier Legault sees this law as the next stage in the evolution of the modern Quebec state, exemplified in the state school system. It is also a clear demonstration of the profound influence of the French intellectual culture, privileging collective rights over individual rights and liberties.   Severing religion from the state is, in many ways, like defending the republic. Any sign or kind of encroachment on larcity/secularism, including the presence of religious symbols or the wearing of religious attire, is seen as a threat to the state. Democratic public institutions, from the CAQ and PQ perspective, exist to represent the will of the majority, which, at times, means overriding the interests of minorities.

What is driving the Quebec government’s determined push for secularism in government services, including the schools? Is the Quebec nationalist conception of the neutral state rooted in the French intellectual tradition? Should the protections guaranteed for individual freedom and minority rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ever be overridden?  Where should governments draw the line in imposing state policy on citizens? 

 

 

 

 

 

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