This year, Quebec became the only jurisdiction in North America to ban the wearing of religious symbols in some public-sector jobs. The law, known as Bill 21, was ostensibly passed to enshrine official secularism, but it’s a reflection of Quebec society’s entrenched fixation with limiting displays of Islamic faith, especially the hijab—an obsession of right-wing pundits in the province’s French-language media. The ban affects some state employees in positions of authority, such as police, judges, crown prosecutors, and public school teachers, and its popularity with Quebecers made it a third rail for national politicians during Canada’s recent federal election. However, in the months since Bill 21 was rammed through in June, it has had an immediate negative effect on the livelihoods of Muslim women.
This is largely because most of the employees affected by the ban are public school teachers—75 percent of whom, in Quebec, are women. (The law does not cover workers such as day care employees, college or university professors, or custodial or secretarial staff.) Some people have agreed to remove their hijabs at work. Some religious families have decided to leave the province. Although the law also prohibits the wearing of turbans and kippahs, the burden of the ban has been overwhelmingly borne by Muslim women; there have been no debates about whether a male teacher can wear a religious beard. The phrasing around what constitutes a “symbol” is deliberately vague; all the government has said for sure is that a tattoo of, say, a cross wouldn’t violate the law.
Last month, a Quebec teachers’ union announced it would sue the provincial government over Bill 21; in late November, a motion to suspend the law made it to Quebec’s Court of Appeal. But the fight against the ban—and against the sentiments that bolster it—is not one that can depend on the decisions of the courts. To defeat both the bill and the worldview it espouses would require uprooting the racism that has kept this kind of legislation within reach.
Quebec’s governing party and the originator of the bill, Coalition Avenir Québec, came into power last year, after running on a platform that included promises to reduce immigration by 20 percent and ban public officials from wearing religious symbols. One year later, the CAQ is preoccupied with blocking immigration and policing identity, and has implemented policies that hurt minority communities the most—such as deregulating the taxi industry—while its grander promises, such as electoral reform, remain unfulfilled. Earlier this year, the government implemented new immigration laws that resulted in the cancellation of more than 18,000 visa applications—blocking as many as 50,000 immigrants in the process—and it has moved closer to imposing a so-called “values test” on those who seek to immigrate to Quebec. Quebec is the only province that has control over its own immigration system. The official language, French, has also been used as a bludgeon: Ministers have mused about denying public services in English to anyone who isn’t a part of what they call “Quebec’s historic Anglophone population”—meaning anyone whose parents didn’t attend an English-language school in the province.
Prior to 1950, the Catholic Church controlled Quebec: social services, education, and health care were all run by the church and limited by its worldview. White women were not allowed to vote in Quebec until 1940—trailing the other provinces by nearly 20 years. Quebecers broke out from under the church’s control in the 1960s during a period called the Quiet Revolution, which also saw working-class Quebecers organize against Anglophone business owners for better working conditions. But the memory of oppression by religious institutions remains—especially for anyone who was subject to abuse in the province’s Catholic schools.
This history has uniquely sensitized Francophone Quebecers—more than other Canadians—to the display of religious symbols, although they continue to live in a province that has the highest number of towns per capita named after saints in the country, and where Catholic symbols are still prominently, and publicly, displayed. As right-wing and neo-Nazi groups have gained more attention in Quebec, backlash against the Catholic Church has been transposed onto Islam. A potent mix of racism, negative associations with religion, and a society turned inward to protect itself from Anglo-American hegemony has made Quebec a perfect location for far-right sentiment to turn into far-right policy.
This debate has also been deeply influenced by a similar conversation in France, where an obsession with state secularism, or laïcité, has led to similar debates over religious symbols. Religious symbols have been banned in French schools since 2004 for both teachers and students—and, most recently, France’s Senate approved a motion that denies women the right to pick up their kids from school while wearing a hijab.
In 2008, a commission created by the Quebec government to study religious accommodation in the province found that Quebec media outlets were guilty of whipping up Islamophobic sentiment—but it also concluded that a secular state should ban religious symbols from being worn by police, judges, and crown prosecutors. The commissioners, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, saw the ban as a reasonable compromise between Quebecers who wanted a total ban on religious symbols and those who opposed bans of any kind. In the 10 years that followed, Islamophobic violence increased, including a 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque; after that massacre, Taylor renounced his former position, arguing that they had made an error in recommending the ban. (Bouchard didn’t go as far, but he did condemn the CAQ for extending the ban to teachers this year.)
The application of Bill 21 to public school teachers reveals that the Quebec government is playing the long game: It wants to prevent the hijab and other markers of non-Christian faiths from becoming normalized. Prohibiting students from coming into contact with women who wear hijabs or men who wear turbans reduces the likelihood that the next generation will oppose measures to marginalize those communities.
Many critics warn that Bill 21 is a slippery slope—that it’s a gateway to banning religious symbols in other parts of society. Already, some school boards have tried to apply it to student teachers as well, threatening to block those who wore religious garb from completing their internships. Student activists threatened to stage massive demonstrations in response—something which Quebec students are particularly good at. The education minister, Jean-François Roberge, stepped in to remind school boards that interns were not included in the bill.
But the ban’s popularity—combined with the geographic concentration of Quebec’s religious minority communities—make it difficult to imagine that protests alone will change the CAQ’s mind. Muslims account for just 3 percent of Quebec’s population, and the vast majority live in urban centers, especially Montreal. Meanwhile, the CAQ is most popular among people living outside Montreal, in parts of the province that are overwhelmingly white. The CAQ has made it clear that they see themselves as responsible only to les Québécois de souche, or “old stock” (white, Francophone) Quebecers. It’s easy to see why court cases have become the favored tool of opponents, as they work to strike down legislation on a human rights basis.
As new stories emerge about acts of xenophobic violence, and families leave the province to escape its political climate, a mirror is being held up to Quebecers: Is this really who we are? Quebec is known for its relatively robust social welfare programs and otherwise progressive ideals—yet the government’s attacks on minority populations have made this place much less safe for many.
There have been pockets of resistance to the law across Quebec from the start. Dozens of rallies have been held in Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Montreal, and Quebec City (where I participate in a coalition to defeat Bill 21). Buttons with a 21 crossed out have been distributed through various community organizations. There have been forums and events on the impact of the law and rising Islamophobia in Quebec. And, in mid-November, the CAQ’s identitarian ethic was dealt its first defeat: The government was forced to withdraw immigration reforms that would have canceled the possibility of obtaining permanent residency for thousands of international students already studying in Quebec.
The success of that fight suggests a way forward for opponents of Bill 21. After the immigration reforms were announced, opposition parties, town councils, colleges, universities, and students staged press conferences and rallies, where they explained to Quebecers that these students—who had been promised a track to citizenship—were about to have their dreams dashed. It didn’t hurt that the CAQ’s reform had been sloppily constructed, or that it made international news when a French citizen was denied residency because her thesis had one chapter in English. Pressure from the media and lobbying by opposition parties forced the CAQ to reverse the changes within a week.
Another key to taking down those reforms was the fact that the opposition parties had united to oppose it. Two of the three opposition parties are also opposed to Bill 21, but no similar effort has been made to repeal it. Maybe that’s because the official opposition, the Quebec Liberal Party, tried to pass a different discriminatory law in 2017 that would have denied people the right to access public services if they were wearing a niqab, which covers most of the face. (That law was struck down by a tribunal, but the CAQ did put a face-covering ban in Bill 21 as well.) The other party that opposes Bill 21, Québec Solidaire, only announced that it was against the banning of religious symbols this past March—and it has still not figured out how to compellingly demand that the law be repealed.
This will be a long-term struggle. We are already into the second decade of the religious accommodations debate in Quebec; forcing the government to repeal this legislation, and diminishing its popularity, are not going to happen overnight. But there’s an important shift underway in Quebec too. According to a Leger poll, support for the law is at 48 percent—a significant drop from 66 percent in April, when the law was first announced. Surely, the stories of women who have been forced to decide between practicing their religion or continuing their careers have helped sway some Quebecers.
Those who are directly targeted by this law need Quebec’s opposition parties to actually fight it—and to support the legal challenges against it, including one by the English Montreal School Board, which alleges that Bill 21’s disproportionate impact on women is discriminatory. Politicians, pundits, and citizen groups must educate the public. Quebecers should have no excuse for thinking that Bill 21 has anything to do with secularism.