The different understandings of Quebec's secularism law: Selected and edited from the Inroads listserv.

Author:Chodos, Bob

On March 28, Quebec's Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, Simon Jolin-Barrette, introduced Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, in the National Assembly. The bill, which proposed to prohibit the wearing of religious dress by some government employees, was the latest in a series of attempts--undertaken by Quebec governments of three different political parties over a period of almost a decade-to put the concept of laicite into practice through legislation. Unlike previous initiatives, Bill 21 was passed by the National Assembly, on June 16, and it went into effect on the same day.

Even though the issue was not new, Bill 21 aroused strong passions and was extensively debated. A very active forum for debate was the Inroads listserv, where there was a lengthy exchange in late March and early April when the bill was first introduced. After sporadic comments in the intervening months, the debate erupted again during the federal election campaign when Prime Minister Trudeau and other prominent leaders said they might intervene in the Charter-based court challenge to Bill 21. This became a catalyst for the rise in the polls of the Bloc Quebecois. Then, after another lull, the listserv was once more peppered with posts about Bill 21 in the days following the election.

Although one of the most eloquent voices opposing the bill on the listserv was that of a francophone Quebecer, and a number of participants from elsewhere in Canada with a longstanding sympathetic interest in Quebec supported the bill, the debate did demonstrate that this issue is viewed in very different ways in French Quebec on one hand and in English Canada on the other. Comprising some 200 posts between March and October, the listserv debate has, not surprisingly, been repetitive, and each side remains as convinced of the Tightness of its position at press time as it was at the beginning. Still, there were some thoughtful arguments put forward, and some of the highlights of the preelection round of the debate are presented here. This will not be the last word on the subject, and Inroads will be covering aspects of it in future issues.

The pre-election round began when Frances Abele drew the attention of the listserv to a September 28 article in the Calgary Herald by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (1) "There are those who say that this is about religious neutrality," Nenshi wrote:

Make no mistake. It is not. This is a law that targets three groups of people: Muslim women who cover their heads, baptized Sikhs and Jewish men who wear a yarmulke. No other sizable religious groups in the province have to wear anything as part of their religious faith... What this ban says is that people of certain faiths, and only these faiths, can't be trusted to do their jobs. It tells schools and municipalities that they can't hire the best people. It says that kids in public schools can't be exposed to people different than them. Introducing Nenshi's article, Frances wrote that she was "posting this because I think it can help us understand the different ways this issue is understood in different parts of Canada. I do appreciate the explanations that were offered by Arthur [Milner], Henry [Milner] and others -progressive and good-hearted people who defended the bill, though none of you convinced me. Here is another progressive and good-hearted person whom it hurts."

John Richards responded.

John Richards | September 29

Frances is not persuaded by those of us who support Bill 21. I am not without doubts about the law. Perhaps it will have unintended consequences and be used as an excuse for genuine bigotry.

Jewish fundamentalists have done bad things in Israel. Sikh fundamentalists have done bad things in India, in Pakistan and in Canada (most significantly killing over 300 Canadian citizens via bombs planted in two Air India flights originating in Vancouver). That said, let's acknowledge the obvious: the main target of the law is Islamic fundamentalism. If Islamism--shorthand for Islamic fundamentalism--was removed from the equation, there would be negligible interest, in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada, in legislation.

While the primary target is Islamism, in a spirit of religious neutrality Bill 21 has also been applied to Jews and Sikhs, two other religious faiths that motivate some among the faithful to display their faith via articles of clothing. Furthermore, Bill 21 makes a symbolic move against Quebec's Catholic tradition by removing the cross from the National Assembly.

Gareth Morley not only is unpersuaded by supporters of Bill 21. "Unlike Frances," Gareth insists, "I am not willing to concede positive motives. Secularism is a nonsense principle." Is it?

Bill 21 is a law inspired by the French tradition of laicite. No doubt, some French and some Quebec proponents have racist motives but, from what I know of French and Quebec culture, the supporters of laicite are not racist; they are primarily concerned about fundamentalist traditions of Islam and are searching for means to persuade Muslims to limit the scope of their religious faith--in other words, to separate Islam from Islamism.

France, the U.K., Belgium, Holland and Germany all have large Muslim minorities. Some of these countries have unambiguously opted for affirmation of secular values filtered by each country's version of...

To continue reading