The deed is finally done. For years, Quebec politicians have been talking about secularism, or laïcité, proposing a range of actions to ban the presence of visible religious symbols among government employees. On Sunday, following a weekend of almost round-the-clock debate, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority in the National Assembly passed Bill 21. The law bans symbols such as the crucifix, turban, hijab and kippah for provincial employees in positions of authority, such as judges, police, prosecutors, court clerks and schoolteachers.
The bill was met with lamentations and anger from the opposition. Catherine Dorion, a member of the National Assembly representing the left-wing party Québec solidaire spoke powerfully in favour of individual liberty and the right to exhibit religious identity.
“Each person in this room who will vote for Bill 21 will bear the responsibility for this first great breach in the dike we had proudly erected to protect the fundamental rights of all Quebecers,” she said.
The vote came a day after a similarly contentious debate on another bill, which addresses the province’s agreement with the federal government over immigration to Quebec. On the one hand, the bill aims to ensure that immigration reflects the province’s labour requirements, which is justifiable. On the other hand, the bill also permits the creation of a “values test” that new Quebecers would have to pass before admission to permanent residency. A test of this nature is one thing in theory – extreme examples like female genital mutilation are raised as justifications – but it is something else in practice.
Government measures to adjudicate an individual’s beliefs is a recipe for disaster. Certainly we would like to see people with hateful or violent attitudes toward particular cultural groups prevented from entering the country, or rehabilitated if they are already here. There are programs and policies in Canada to address this problem and they should be strengthened. But applying what amounts to a form of prior restraint on the ideas and beliefs of new Canadians by a government with limited respect for civil liberties crosses a perilous line.
The religious symbols law parallels the immigration law in its flouting of civil liberties, but diverges importantly in a number of ways. It applies to people who are already Canadian (for the most part, at least), which is a more grievous affront than putting up barriers for non-citizens.
In responding to criticism, Quebec Premier François Legault declared: “Someone once said, beware of those who say they like the people but do not listen to what the people want.”
This language reflects a populism we have seen in Europe as well as North America, but which has been thankfully rare in this country. The idea that governments should do whatever “the people” want invites a tyranny of the majority that is almost destined to trample on individual rights, especially the rights of members of minority communities. It bears stating that, in Quebec, in order to deliver the will of the people, the assembly had to clip the wings of democracy not once but twice, invoking closure on debate on both bills and, in the case of Bill 21, promising to use the Canadian Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause to override what even the government of Quebec acknowledges is a unconstitutional infringement on individual rights.
We are seeing flare-ups elsewhere in Canada of how some of “the people” would like to see public policy progress. On the same busy weekend, a rally in downtown Vancouver against transgender rights and opposing the province’s progressive sexual education agenda turned nasty (if the mission of the event wasn’t nasty enough) when counter-protesters showed up to confront them. At the rally were the Soldiers of Odin, a far-right group, people wearing yellow vests, the symbol of an amorphous movement that began in France and has attracted extremists, and at least one leading member of the People’s Party of Canada, a new populist party that seems determined to stoke a range of fears and prejudices in the lead-up to the federal election this fall.
Violence also erupted last weekend at a pride parade in Hamilton, Ont., when protesters showed up at the celebration. A local politician laid blame for the violence, which included punching and choking, on “far-right evangelicals” who he said were “just there to sucker-punch people.”
All of this is to say that Canada is not immune to extremism or even politically motivated violence. There is, of course, an important line between the violence in Hamilton and the laws that were rammed through Quebec’s legislature. Violence deserves universal condemnation while passionate disagreements over politics – even laws we see as repressive and excessive – are justifiable and welcome. Still, these incidents all reflect different approaches to “othering” – the idea that “we” are under threat from “them.”
What is encouraging is hearing the voices of those forced to defend the values of inclusion and respect for diversity. There was eloquence on the opposition side of Quebec’s National Assembly last weekend and, in response to the altercations in Hamilton and Vancouver, admirable recommitment by many to the values that we genuinely hope will represent the Canada we hope to create. This is also a reminder to speak up, so that when politicians say they are doing what “the people” want, what they mean is the will of people who pursue inclusion, acceptance and diversity.