Bill 21 – An Act respecting the laicity of the State – is turning out to be the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s most controversial legislative initiative. By preventing many public employees from wearing religious symbols, the party seeks to secularize the province.
But the bill represents more than that: by effectively keeping visible minorities out of positions of authority in a part of the world with an important Catholic heritage, the policy is more a rejection of multiculturalism than it is an affirmation of secularism.
As a premier, François Legault initially insisted that the crucifix that loomed over the National Assembly’s elected members since 1936 was here to stay because it was a historical symbol, not a religious one. While it is true that legislative sessions do not begin with a prayer as they used to, the decision to remove the crucifix came as a token to show that the government was serious about implementing its controversial secularism bill.
However, Quebec is mired in its Catholic legacy, and Legault’s change of heart reflects how difficult it is to distinguish between cultural heritage and religious significance. A recent survey indicates that 63% of respondents in Quebec believe that “crosses and other religious symbols that adorn public institutions should remain in their place because they are part of the heritage of Quebec.”
Yet Bill 21 leaves no room for ambiguity: for the first time since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebec rejected the powerful grip of the Catholic Church, the government will be able to police the dress of public officials according to their religion. Meanwhile, the CAQ provides no justification for the presumption that people wearing religious symbols are pushing their belief on to others – much less any statistical evidence about how many public servants actually wear them.
In reality, religious symbols have many meanings beyond faith. People often wear crucifixes, headscarves, a Star of David or a Sikh turban to represent cultural, political and historical symbols, to which Bill 21 shows little regard or understanding. In fact, in its current form, it is solely up to the government to define what constitutes a religious symbol – a dangerous move for a state that proclaims to guarantee freedom of religion.
Worst of all, Bill 21 puts visible minorities under the microscope, singling them out for scrutiny not reserved for those who can easily hide their religious affiliation without compromising their piety. Incidents of hate crimes have spiked since the bill was introduced, as some people feel empowered to act out their xenophobia.
Even if Quebec is a secular province, many Quebecers see their identity and heritage as specifically Catholic, even if they aren’t religious. A recent poll in the province found that roughly 47% of respondents felt their way of life was threatened by the presence of religious minorities, showing that perhaps this bill is based more on a fear of what’s different than enshrining secularism.
Curiously, the government has not mandated the removal of Catholic symbols from public schools. In fact, a comprehensive report by veteran social activist Bill Clennett found over 1,500 buildings managed by Quebec school boards contain a Catholic religious symbol, and another 1,200 had a Catholic icon in their name.
Despite this, the government has already contacted most public-school boards to clarify the implementation of the policy for new hires – with no mention about getting rid of existing Catholic symbols. To make teachers hide their religious affiliation as they enter a school adorned with a crucifix is a special kind of irony.
And some proud Catholics, such as Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine, are dismayed.
“The bill saddens me,” Lépine told the Nation. “It saddens me because Quebec is a proud society, and I’m proud of my culture. But that does not mean we have to protect it from other minority cultures.”
Schools are microcosms that reflect society, the archbishop observed. “What kind of message are we sending to children,” he asked, “if we tell them that some beliefs must be hidden? For a society that respects religious freedom, how do you respect in others what you make them hide?”
Lépine emphasizes that secularism is a means to an end – so that the state serves and respects all people, regardless of individual associations or beliefs.
“Otherwise we are saying that people who adhere to their religious practices are second-class citizens,” he said. “Diminishing the rights of minorities simply isn’t a solution.”
In Eeyou Istchee, the Cree Education Act means the Cree School Board is exempt from the ruling. Speaking to the Nation, CSB chairperson Sarah Pash described why the CSB decided not to implement the policy.
“Our teaching is based on Cree values,” Pash said. “While we do follow the Quebec Education program, it’s important for us to show that we respect all our staff. That’s because respect is an important part of our value system.”
Perhaps the CAQ government could learn from this approach to cultural values.