What is Bill 21?
Also known as laïcité or Quebec’s secularism bill, Bill 21 prohibits Quebec citizens who work in public service from wearing religious symbols while fulfilling their civic duties. Bill 21 prohibits religious symbols such as the Jewish kippah, the Sikh dastar, and the Muslim hijab in public educational, government and law enforcement spaces. Through globalization, there has been a trend toward secularity in many different societies around the world. Arguably, this trend has derived from conflict amongst sociocultural groups between the East and West.
What is Bill 21 trying to accomplish?
Bill 21 consists of four principles including the religious neutrality of the state; the separation of religion and state; the equality of all citizens; and freedom of conscience and religion. Bill 21 also seeks to place fundamental importance on state secularism by amending the rights of religious freedom under the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms (a provincial mandate under the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms). Invoking s. 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, also known as the “notwithstanding clause,” Quebec’s government was able to bypass Charter rights to pass Bill 21. The Bill prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in public sectors, whether it be by civil employees or recipients of services in such sectors.
How would Bill 21 affect Canadians?
Bill 21 targets racial and religious minorities in Canada. The Bill is a direct attack on citizens’ religious freedoms and liberty of expression because it will prevent the ability to work in certain professions. The principles of a diverse democratic state, such as Canada, are supposed to uphold the rights and liberties of every Canadian citizen without discrimination on grounds which include race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and political opinion. Our rights and freedoms are enshrined in Canadian laws; therefore, it is alarming to witness the introduction of new laws that can infringe on our freedoms and liberties which were originally established in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “The values and principles which guide the Court in applying section 1 include the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society (R. v. Oakes,  1 S.C.R. 103 at page 136).”
Bill 21 targets religious and ethnic minorities by limiting their access and participation in civil roles. Limiting one’s opportunities and occupation solely on the basis of religious attire is a breach of one’s religious freedom in a democratic country. Furthermore, limiting citizens who wear visible markers of their faith from working in the public sector prevents diversity in the workplace. This is ironic considering the multitude of diversity and anti-racism initiatives in Canada such as the 50-30 challenge and the mentorship program with the Centre for Diversity & Inclusion (CDI). The 50-30 challenge expects employers in Canada to have 50% gender parity and 30% of employees from a visible minority. The mentorship program with CDI promotes minority visibility and accessibility for development in the workplace. Moreover, the CDI has created a Federal Speaker’s Forum (FSF) on diversity and inclusion, which provides a space for public servants to share their experiences of the barriers they have faced in the workplace. We argue that it seems very contradictory to have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that explicitly states the protection of religion and expression in addition to federal initiatives to combat racism in the workplace, but then obstruct particular individuals of minority religions from working as public servants. Bill 21 essentially cancels-out diversity initiatives in Quebec and further promotes racism which is masked as secularity to other provinces in Canada.
Why does this matter to Manitobans?
Although Bill 21 is mandated for the province of Quebec, it affects all Canadian citizens because it is a form of structural violence. It limits the opportunities of certain groups of individuals while advancing the opportunities of others. In a CBC news video, three Quebec women explain how Bill 21 has affected them. Maha Kassef, a Quebec teacher says that:
“I feel like I am less of a human being because I choose to do something (wear a scarf) that honestly doesn’t really affect people around me”.
Amar Al-Shakfa, a new McGill University graduate says that:
“You can do your internship at a public school, however, you cannot get hired because of Bill 21… I am a person who is qualified to teach, why would a piece of fabric that has a completely personal meaning affect them? How would it affect the way I teach the students? In class, we do not speak about religion, I don’t speak about anything but science.”
Nadia Maria Zaidi, a former teacher who recently resigned states that:
“I am able to keep my job because I was hired a couple of years ago, but my sister who is in university will never be able to pursue her dreams. I will never be able to climb the ladder and be a vice principal one day… you can’t aspire to bigger dreams because of Bill 21.”
It is important to note that it was next to impossible to find stories online of people who are not Sikh or Muslim, and have been affected by Bill 21. Is Bill 21 then overwhelmingly affects minority women? Specifically Muslim and Sikh women who wear hijabs and turbans? Muslim and Sikh women who wear these visible markers of their faith do so to practice personal modesty and show devotion to their Creator. In a Huffington Post article, Amrit Kaur, a Sikh woman and teacher from Quebec had to uproot her life and move to B.C. in order to find a teaching job. Kaur states that:
“It was a choice put on me — either I take off my dastar (turban) or I choose a different profession.”
Although Bill 21 includes all religious symbols including Christian cross necklaces and Jewish Star of David necklaces, these are jewelry items worn by choice as an expression of faith. In regard to other religious attire such as the hijab, turban, and kippah, the majority of Muslims, Sikhs, and Jewish people state that it is a divine religious mandate, meaning that although it is a choice to do anything in one’s life, it is an act of obedience and worship to their Creator. Wearing the hijab or the turban is not something one can simply flip back and forth from or turn on and off depending on the time and place.
It is crucial to look at how structural violence perpetuates xenophobia. The sudden implementation of new laws in the name of secularism in countries such as France, Belgium and Austria further divide communities along sociocultural lines. These laws did not come out of nowhere, they have a particular trend and agenda to further marginalize racial and religious minorities, particularly women from the Middle East and South Asia. It is important for Manitobans to recognize the divisive nature of Bill 21 as it is a threat to liberties and freedoms as well as identities that do not conform to secular ideals.
What can be done to prevent the legislation of Bill 21?
It is evident that Bill 21 is problematic in nature and it is important to share that with our wider communities. In this global day and age, social media is the best way to spread and share accurate information with people across the country and across the world. It is our civic duty to protect the rights and liberties of all Canadians, especially marginalized minorities. As Manitobans, we ought to expect laws to protect and advance our rights, not limit or infringe on them. Social media platforms have the ability to actively engage audiences of all ages and diverse backgrounds from a press of a button. Raising awareness on the problematic nature of Bill 21 can bring communities together in support and solidarity to equally uphold rights for all. Social media creates movements for change.
Additionally, creating and signing petitions will bring attention to the matter by involving elected officials and government bodies. These officials and government representatives have the power to make change at the Provincial and Federal levels. Petitions, along with emails and calls, present communal support and urgency on the issues in local communities. Peacefully protesting also brings visible awareness to issues that are commonly talked about online. Protesting shows that people will come together collectively to support each other. Peaceful protesting is a beautiful act of community solidarity.
Lastly, whether it be in our homes, schools, or online platforms, education on religious symbols is crucial to combat the xenophobic nature of Bill 21. Many people in favour of the Bill are uneducated on what religious symbols such as the hijab, dastar, niqab, or kippah mean to those who wear them. Religious minorities argue that they are divinely mandated in their faith and that they are acts of worship to their Creator. Thus, learning about the true meaning and nature of these symbols is crucial to combating racism and xenophobia which can simply be achieved through speaking to women who wear hijab, men and women who wear the dastar, men who wear the kippah, and women who wear the bonnet or kerchief.
Bill 21 is unconstitutional and discriminatory. While Bill 21 was initiated in Quebec, it affects Canadian’s freedom and liberties, previously enshrined in the charter. As Canadians and Manitobans, we ought to stand united against legislation which aims to limit our fundamental liberties. Most importantly, it is critical for Canadians to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards secular agendas which promote further marginalization of ethnic and religious communities, especially given the global rise of Islamophobia. Bill 21 disproportionately targets religious and racialized women. It is a proposed legislation which stands in contrast to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore has no place in Canadian society. Our response to Bill 21 must be unequivocal, Canada is enriched not weakened by diversity and our laws must protect diversity not limit it.
Awareness, advocacy and engagement are the best mechanisms which can be used to combat xenophobic rhetoric on a local and national level. We ought to seek understanding and harbour curiosity rather than fear of what is unknown to us. Additionally, we can speak out against intolerance and engage our local and national political representatives to ensure that our voices are heard. Canadian Association for Rights and Liberties (CCLA) along with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) have launched a challenge against Bill 21 at Quebec’s Superior Court. CCLA and NCCM are currently appealing the court’s decision on Bill 21. Although Quebec’s Superior Court has struck down some of Bill 21 in April of 2021, the bill remains in act. A petition against the bill can be signed at Canadian Association for Rights and Liberties.
Chelsea Bonan and Talia Taras
Summer Practicum Students 2021