Groups opposed to the Legault government’s proposed law on state secularism wasted no time Friday skewering the plan as “racist”, saying it presumes that only a heterosexual white male can be impartial and laying the groundwork for veiled Muslim women to suffer “daily violence” if it is adopted.
Bill 21 would ban the wearing of religious symbols by some Quebec government employees, including police officers, prison guards and elementary and high-school teachers.
Safa Chebbi, of the Table de concertation contre le racisme systémique, described the proposed law as clearly racist.
“It is time to stop denying racism. The negation of racism or Islamophobia is a denial of a reality faced by many Quebecers,” she said Friday. “And if we have reached this point it’s because Islamophobia has become strident and acceptable in our society.”
Hers was among seven groups including Amnesty International and the province’s main women’s federation that attacked the secularism bill as discriminatory at a news conference Friday.
Their news conference came shortly after Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she had received hateful messages after speaking out publicly against Bill 21.
“I’m a politician, it’s part of my job, but the messages I’ve received since yesterday are appalling,” Plante told reporters at city hall. “It’s very frontal, very aggressive, even very violent at times.”
Plante said she is concerned that people who wear religious symbols will become targets.
“I’m concerned for the children in the schoolyard who feel judged because their mother wears a headscarf,” she said.
Also Friday, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said they intend to fight “by every means available” the bill introduced by the Quebec government on Thursday. The two groups said they strongly oppose the bill and could take legal action. They said the bill discriminates against minority groups.
“Bill 21 … effectively targets and discriminates against religious minorities, including in particular those individual Muslims, Jews and Sikhs who wear a religious symbol as part of their faith,” CCLA equality director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said in a statement.
NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee said the bill was introduced without consultation 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,” Gardee said. “Quebec is a democratic, progressive and inclusive society; yet this bill is regressive and squarely against these core values.”
The proposed law includes the use of the notwithstanding clauses in the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights to override religious rights.
It includes an acquired-rights clause that would allow existing employees to continue to wear symbols such as the hijab, kippe or turban as long as they continue to hold the job they had on the day the bill was introduced.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Thursday that the government believes it has found the correct approach.
France-Isabelle Langlois, Amnesty International’s director for French-speaking Canada said the bill contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Idil Issa, vice-president of the Fondation Parole de femmes, which represents women from visible minorities, said Muslim women wearing the hijab will bear the brunt of the law’s impact.
“Veiled Muslim women are very visible and very identifiable,” she said. “And (they) will suffer, along with the loss of their jobs or career opportunities, violence and stigmatization on a daily basis if this law passes.”
The groups are asking that the bill be withdrawn, but they acknowledge the battle will be difficult because the government has invoked the notwithstanding clause to block possible court challenges.
Presse Canadienne contributed to this report.