THE World Sikh Organization of Canada said on Thursday that it is deeply disappointed by the tabling of Bill 21 – ‘An Act Respecting Laicity of the State’ by the Coalition Avenir de Quebec government banning the wearing of religious symbols.
Public servants in positions of authority such as police officers, judges, prosecutors and also school teachers will be included in the ban. The bill has invoked the notwithstanding clause, allowing it to override freedom of religion protections enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
This is the fourth time that Quebec has seen the introduction of a bill banning religious garb or symbols, with this being the broadest proposal to date.
The term “religious symbols” remains undefined in the law, leaving it unclear how particular items of jewelry or clothing will be classified cultural, religious or otherwise and who will make that determination.
There are approximately 15,000 Sikhs in Quebec who will be disproportionately impacted by the ban on religious clothing and symbols. Practicing Sikhs, both men and women, wear the Sikh articles of faith such as the turban at all times as part of their daily lives as reminders of the principles of equality, service and spirituality.
WSO President Mukhbir Singh said: “We are deeply disappointed that the CAQ has introduced legislation banning the wearing of religious clothing and symbols in Quebec. The proposed legislation is a solution to a problem that does not exist- there is no evidence to suggest that individuals wearing items of religious clothing are negatively impacting anyone in society. Secularism is about the neutrality of the state towards religion and not about limiting individuals’ freedom of religion.
“This ban will have a deeply negative impact on Sikhs in Quebec. The wearing of the turban and the Sikh articles of faith is not optional for Sikhs and a ban on these articles of faith is, in effect, a ban on Sikhs in positions of authority. We fear that this ban will have a trickle-down effect into the private sector and young Sikhs who are born and raised in Quebec will find it even more difficult to find jobs in the province.
“Because the CAQ government has invoked the notwithstanding clause to override protections for freedom of religion enshrined in both the Canadian and Quebec Charters, the only solution is for the people of Quebec to strongly oppose this bill. We are also hopeful that politicians across Quebec and Canada will join us in denouncing this deeply discriminatory legislation.”
ALSO, the Quebec office of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) said the CAQ government’s so-called secularism bill will render Quebec Muslims and other minority communities second-class citizens.
“The CAQ government has introduced this discriminatory legislation without engaging in any consultation whatsoever with impacted communities. If this bill becomes law, Quebec Muslims will be facing a very different set of circumstances and socio-economic prospects than those around them. Quebec is a democratic, progressive and inclusive society; yet this bill is regressive and is squarely against these core values,” said NCCM Quebec spokesperson Sarah Abou-Bakr.
The bill would ban the wearing of the hijab, kippah, and turban for public servants, including teachers, school administrators, Crown lawyers, police officers, correctional officers and others.
“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. Secularism is about the state protecting religious freedom for all Quebecers, and not coercing individual conformity to what the majority wants,” said NCCM Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee.
“Quebec is understandably trying to find a way to deal with an increasingly diverse society while still protecting its distinct Francophone culture. But removing the fundamental rights and freedoms of some Quebecers will only entrench division,” added Abou-Bakr.
“The CAQ government cannot claim to protect Quebec’s right to be different while at the same time discriminating against Quebecers who themselves are different. We will be speaking to Quebecers about how this bill fails to protect Quebec’s distinct society and jeopardizes its future as a strong and prosperous place.”
Thursday’s bill invoked the rarely-used ‘notwithstanding clause’ in an attempt to override future legal challenges to the legislation. But according to the NCCM, the fight to safeguard the rights of minority communities in Quebec has only just begun.
“The CAQ government’s use of the notwithstanding clause is a tacit admission that this bill would not pass constitutional muster. The NCCM’s legal team is undertaking a careful review of the bill to determine what options exist to challenge this discriminatory legislation,” said Gardee.