Laïcité : The election éléphant in the room

Why one of the most pertinent social justice issues is being sidelined in this election

(Kristen Frier)

(Kristen Frier)

Election time’s around the corner, and campaigns are in full force. COVID-19 recovery and reconciliation are, as expected, the focal points of the election, along with the perpetual issues of climate change and housing affordability. You know, the all-talk-no-action topics.

The Quebec “Secularism” Bill 21, which bans all provincial government employees from displaying “all ostentatious religious symbols,” realistically only impacts those who wear the niqab, the Sikh turban and to a lesser extent, the kippah.  

When asked about this issue in the English debate, M. Blanchet of the Bloc-Quebecois said that these laws were not discriminatory and “were just about the values of Quebec” establishing laïcité as a cultural issue instead of what it actually is: a populist ploy by Quebec premier François Legault. He also went on to affirm the “nationhood” of Quebec while implying the tacit approval of the other party leaders, all of whom chose to remain silent on this issue because well Quebec seats count. Minorities? Not as much. 

This leads to confusing positions like that of Justin Trudeau, who said he doesn’t approve of the law but wouldn’t challenge it legally. Similar good-for-nothing stances are held by Erin O’Toole, a descendant of Irish Catholics, Annamie Paul, Jewish by conversion, and Jagmeet Singh, the first and only Sikh head of a party who wears a turban.

One would assume that at least he would react strongly to this discrimination, but he is, after all a politician. 

The supposed justification for laïcité in the Canadian context stems from the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, which led to a steady secularisation of the Quebec society, a shift from tight control of the Catholic church over all aspects of life, to a more relaxed, and then rather hostile approach towards religion similar to the aftermath of the French Revolution.  

This supposed aversion to religious expression is being used as a justification to infringe upon the rights of religious minorities. One of the worst ways of accomplishing this is the notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to override basic freedoms guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No, I’m not quoting from Orwell’s 1984, although I wish I were. 

Parc’q’au Québec, C’est comme ça qu’on vit. “Because that’s how we live in Quebec.” 

This is what Legault said while defending Bill 21, accompanied by the usual rant about “preserving Quebec’s values.” This was a slap in the face to religious minorities in Quebec, asserting the law and demanding minorities adjust to it to show them their “real” place.

Provincial autonomy is not and should not be a concern when fundamental rights are threatened, whether they pertain to accessing services in one’s native language or practising religion. Federal parties using this argument to avoid challenging it in the Supreme court are just shirking responsibility, masquerading as defenders of minorities otherwise while abandoning them for political gain.  

Bill 21 does however seem to have the support of a large section of Quebecker society, resulting from what I believe is a mix of justified feelings of historical oppression and a sense of the importance of preserving cultural values, something which is being exploited by Legault for populist demagoguery, while scapegoating Quebec’s minorities.

There needs to be a dialogue between Quebeckers supporting this bill and religious minorities, helping each other understand the other’s perspective and making Quebeckers see through the populism they’re being fed in addition to the damage it has inflicted. As one of the first marginalized communities of Canada, Quebeckers should have a reason to empathize with the religious minorities’ concerns, as long as their fears of losing their culture are adequately assuaged.