Quebec’s secularist bill targets Muslim women

Quebec’s Coalition Avenir, a right-leaning organization, is set to pass a ban on wearing overt religious symbols as a public sector employee. The ban has been criticized for specifically targeting Muslim women wearing hijabs.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a vocal opponent of the bill. “It is unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” he told reporters in a press conference on March 28.

The bill was introduced by Minister of Immigration Simon Jolin-Barrette as “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” One reason for passing the bill is for the purpose of separating church and state.

According to Al Jazeera, current government employees and civil servants are exempt from the bill, but it will apply to any and all incoming public sector employees wearing religious clothing or symbols.

Teachers, judges and police officers are some of the public workers the bill affects. Besides hijabs, religious clothing that will be banned include kippahs, crucifixes and Sikh turbans.

Despite current teachers being exempt from the new bill, if these teachers were to move schools or be promoted, it would then apply to them. The only schools that will be considered exempt from the new legislation are private schools because they are not public, government-funded institutions.

Student teacher Amrit Kaur is concerned that she will be forced to look for a job in a private school in order to continue wearing her Sikh turban. “This [bill] just sends the message to people who wear religious symbols that we are secondary citizens,” Kaur told The National Post.

“[The turban] is something I wear all the time,” she explained. “It’s not something I just wear inside. It’s an exercise of my human right to practice my faith.”

Sonia Ethier, president of the biggest elementary and high school teachers’ union, compared the bill to “using a cannon to kill a fly.”

The bill would also require any citizens receiving a public service to uncover their faces if they are wearing religious headwear. The bill claims this is for identification and security reasons. Citizens subjected to this rule would have to uncover their faces if they were boarding a city bus with a transit pass.  

Canadian Olympic speed skater and Junior Educational Minister Isabelle Charest sides with the proposed bill, arguing the hijab is “not something women should be wearing.”

“It does have, at some point, some significance about oppression of women, and the fact that they have to cover themselves, and for me it’s not in my values,” she explained to press on Feb. 6.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish community of Quebec has expressed great concern over the bill. Quebec Regional Director of B’nai Brith International, a Jewish advocacy group, commented, “We call on the [Quebec government] to avoid the slippery slope of diminishing fundamental rights and work instead to secure religious liberties for all Quebecers.”

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said, “Under the guise of secularism, this legislation is effectively a prohibition on wearing the hijab in the Quebec public service given the overwhelming number of people impacted will be Muslim women.”

This bill is not Quebec’s first attempt to implement new policies regarding religious clothing and symbols in the public sector. In October 2017, Quebec passed a law which “required public services to be given and received with an uncovered face,” according to The National Post. However, that law was suspended by a judge who claimed the law was discriminatory toward women who choose to wear a full-face covering garment.

According to Reuters, in order to protect the new bill from the same fate as its predecessor, the Quebec government has called on a rarely used clause, allowing them to “override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for up to five years.”

Canada’s politicians continue to be divided over the issue of religious freedom. Anjou Councillor Lynne Shand was recently criticized for her Facebook post, which said Canada was facing “Islamification” after a female doctor in a hijab performed an emergency ophthalmology exam on the woman.

“If it hadn’t been an emergency, I would have refused to be treated by her,” Shand posted to Facebook. “I’m angry because it’s really the Islamification of our country.”