Quebec’s Secularism Law Is Meant to Marginalize Visible and Religious Minorities

CAQ Premier Francois Legault’s Law 21 is promoted as a progressive legal framework celebrating the values of religious neutrality, though its explicit and implicit implications are clearly neither secular nor neutral for minority citizens. Law 21 is a majoritarian law meant to invoke constitutional hegemony. What this law does is frame the rights and freedoms of visible and religious minorities as an obstacle to the homogeneous culture of the dominant group. This ideological mandate is driven by xenophobic responses towards diversity and multiculturalism and made by the dominant cultural majority. The passage of Bill 21 into law has created social dissonance, which puts the rights of religious minorities at odds with the agenda for national identity, which inevitably will result in undermining social harmony and progressive immigrant integration.

Secularism, as an ideology, upholds state neutrality towards religion through clear separation of religion and the state. As a principle of our society, this value sees citizenship embedded in equality, and the protection of an individual’s freedom of religious and ethnic identifications. It is precisely the government’s aims towards equality that have been dishonoured by Law 21 because it officially prohibits citizens, including Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women, as well as Sikh and Jewish men, from serving as police officers or teachers, or holding public office. This is strictly due to their choice of apparel inferring a religious identity (hijab, turban, kippah). During World War II, Sikh soldiers wearing their turbans contributed to defending the Western alliance against Nazis. These same men would be declared unfit to hold public office in Quebec. Law 21 effectively legitimizes state-sponsored discrimination.

While implemented by CAQ, Law 21 is part of an agenda of predecessor nationalist governments, which has been accomplished in several successive stages. The first stage is to make the numerically dominant group feel that their religion, culture, and lifestyles are under threat from groups alien to the dominant culture. Next stage is to spread a psychology of fear and persuade the public that Quebec’s values are endangered. The final step is to use majoritarian vote to suppress rights of minorities. This continued ethno-nationalist waves of mobilization are rooted in a complex colonial legacy. Take for example our late Premier Jacques Parizeau’s remark on how “money and ethnic votes” led to the defeat of Quebec’s independence, and the late Premier René Levesque’s accusation of multiculturalism being a federalist blow against Quebec sovereignty. Separatist identity in Quebec has long since been fueled by both an assertion of reparation and identity, as well as legitimate fears of losing Quebec’s unique cultural identity. However, the nationalist aspirations of Quebec’s dominant white Francophones have been realised on multiple levels, consolidated by Bill 101 as well as other measures to protect French culture.

While the ethno-nationalist mobilization that started with the separatist movement was originally rooted in protecting francophone rights and culture, the dynamics of Law 21 and more recent actions illustrate the darker side of imposing definitions of citizenship on to the rights of those in Quebec. This law directly threatens the dignity and rights of a small segment of the society, largely living in urban Montreal. This is a vulnerable visible minority that accounts for less than 11% of the total population of Quebec. By implementing Law 21, we are in danger of inviting extreme, right-wing views. We are empowering a nationalist rhetoric that envisions a culturally homogeneous state, where minorities remain marginalized citizens. This law capitalizes on fear, while stirring resentment, anger and vengeance, by disrupting social alliances and splitting the discourse into “us” and “them”: those who belong and those who are outsiders.

This fear and resentment has been observed in both the popular media and with paranoid xenophobes. The full extent of this was seen with Hérouxville councillor André Drouin, who solemnised the Code of Life, propagandizing that immigrants (by which he meant Muslims), must be barred from covering faces, for stoning adulterous women, performing genital mutilation, or dousing women with acid. Let there be no doubt that horrible crimes are inflicted on women in different parts of the world, and Quebec has been duly celebrated for a progressive stance on supporting women and men who are fighting to change these practices. However, what people like Mr. Drouin rashly overlook is the fact that there is no precedent of such crimes in Canada. Fears of such crimes are projected onto the dread of post 9/11 terror. Moreover, the Western world has accomplished credentials for lynching, enslaving, establishing residential schools, racial profiling, murdering aboriginal women, and assaulting Hijabi-ed women and lest we forget the mass shooting at a Mosque Quebec City. No “Code of Life” was ever passed to stop this bigotry. Drouin’s movement struck a chord with largely white-Franco Quebecers, drawing commentary from the late Premier Bernard Landry and ADQ leader Mario Dumont. While this was enough to prompt Premier Jean Charest to order the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation, a roadshow in the name of public consultation, it only left us with recommendations which have been largely ignored by successive Quebec governments.

The nationalist mobilization continued with ex-Premier Pauline Marois’ Quebec Charter of Values, which in addition to banning apparel such as the hijab, professed to liberate Muslim women from the clutches of patriarchy. The fact that Muslim women wore a hijab not because of but despite patriarchal powers, seemed of little importance in this rhetoric of liberation. Along the same vein, the succeeding liberal government of Premier Philip Couillard introduced the “Religious Neutrality Law” banning women from wearing niqabs, burqas, etc., while accessing public services such as public transport. A long Quebec resistance to the Catholic dominance shaping progression on gender and women’s rights has marked a great concern for women under all religions who may be oppressed to varying degrees and led to gains for gender equity. Given our human rights laws and protections, the liberation of women will come from their own struggle rather than a set of narrow nationalist laws and mentalities.

At present, populist mobilization has become a standard formula to undermine democracy and marginalize the Other in order to gain votes. It’s this doctrine which permitted Mr. Legault to win a solid majority, proclaiming, “The majority was asking for secularism.” This is not secularism but populism. Secularism is about neutrality and inclusion rather than majoritarian hegemony and exclusion.

The CAQ government has brought Law 21 as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Real problems are unemployment, healthcare, education, women’s issues, environment, equity, housing, indigenous rights and so on – not an alien dress code alleged to be compromising Quebec identity.  Arguably, if Quebec’s identity can be compromised by a strip of clothing, its identity and history must be very fragile.

There is only one answer to Law 21: citizens’ mobilization for a true secular Quebec.

Rahul Varma
Playwright and Artistic Director, Teesri Duniya Theatre