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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Symbols of power

BY Lyle Stewart May 24, 2019

From the roof of the Nation’s building in Montreal – where we would sometimes escape for a smoke and a beer before building management took exception – we would gaze out on the city’s Mount Royal, topped by the emblematic cross outlined in colourful lights.

It’s an anachronism in 2019 in this multiethnic city, so enriched as it is by cultures and creeds from around the globe. But it speaks to a time when Catholicism was used as a conquering sword against the Indigenous populations in the New World. As with the crucifix that overlooked Quebec’s National Assembly until this year, it is a symbol of power and of a dominant culture.

As the new Coalition Avenir Québec government pushes its controversial secularism legislation – Bill 21 – through the provincial legislature, these questions are sadly preoccupying the political agenda. There have been no reported incidents of someone in public authority wearing a visible religious symbol – be they hijabs, turbans or a Star of David – causing a problem in Quebec. But this, apparently, is our highest public priority.

In reality, it is a political manoeuvre by this right-wing government similar to what we see in the US and other countries around the world. By demonizing a minority culture, the CAQ hopes to cement its own political power among Quebec’s francophone majority. It is demagogic politics at its worst and most dangerous.

Worse, the law’s backers claim they are supporting women, when in fact these men – and they are by far mostly men – are imposing a dress code on women by telling them what they can and cannot wear. This law would affect very few men, while hundreds of female daycare educators and schoolteachers will be told they are not welcome.

A doctor who wore a hijab delivered one of my children. She was excellent, and the sight of the piece of fabric covering her hair did not incite or intimidate us into converting to Islam. Nor did the daycare educators wearing head coverings who took care of another son for a year do anything but change his diapers, feed him, entertain him and comfort him when he was upset. Their choice of clothing had no effect whatsoever on their work, or on my son.

As if that isn’t bad enough, this legislation goes far beyond trying to institute a secular state. It will turn Quebec into a police state in its fervour to eliminate unfamiliar cultures.

As human-rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis pointed out in a recent Montreal Gazette article, Bill 21 also eliminates several other rights guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution. These include the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, and the right to a presumption of innocence.

We are on the cusp of a very frightening future if Bill 21 becomes law in its current form. It must be withdrawn.

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Lyle Stewart has been working as a journalist for over 30 years. He believes that information is the ultimate check on the abuse of power and that independent media outlets such as the Nation are crucial to democratic governance.