The Quebec government of Francois Legault is bringing forward a bill that would outlaw the wearing of “religious symbols” by public employees. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) holds a majority of seats in Quebec’s National Assembly. Bill 21 would target judges, police and prison guards, as well as teachers.
Premier Legault argues the law is needed to defend “laicité”, the separation of church and state, claiming even-handedness, since the crucifix which was installed 85 years ago in the chamber of deputies during the Duplessis era will be removed from the National Assembly.
In reality, the law is primarily aimed at Quebec’s Muslim community and will overtly discriminate against women with a hijab (head covering) or the smaller number of women wearing the burka (veil). When asked to justify excluding hijab clad women who want to become teachers, Legault replied arrogantly “they will just have to find other jobs.” Removing a face covering would be required to receive public services, even something as simple as riding public transit.
If the law is ultimately declared unconstitutional, Legault will likely invoke the notwithstanding clause. This was famously used to protect Bill 101, Quebec’s language law, a measure that enjoys much greater public support than the victimization of minority women enshrined in Bill 21. Banning head coverings and veils has more support in rural and small-town Quebec. Antipathy to these repressive measures is strongest in Montreal, where most cultural and religious minorities are concentrated.
Quebec society has been roiled by Islamophobia for over ten years. First cultivated by the right wing populist predecessors of the CAQ, it was then taken up by the Parti Quebecois which tried to foist a “Charte des Valeurs” on the province in 2013. In 2017, a young man immersed in the white racist milieu opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, killing 6 and wounding 19 defenseless worshipers.
As prospects for Quebec independence have dimmed, there has been a rise of identarian white nationalism giving an opening to right wing populist parties like the CAQ and in turn feeding more extreme manifestations of xenophobia.
Quebec Solidaire has not been untouched by Islamophobia, but in a welcome move it came out against Bill 21 at its recent National Council meeting.
An anti-racist campaign in defense of the rights of Muslim women is gathering steam. Defeating this racist and anti-woman bill will strengthen struggles against cuts in public services, attacks on wages and working conditions, and the ongoing environmental degradation and corporate plunder of Quebec’s natural wealth which is the hidden agenda of Legault’s pro-business administration.
Robbie Mahood, reporting from Montréal