Legislative hearings on outlawing the wearing of religious clothing or symbols by specific Quebec public servants could easily be dismissed as proverbial lipstick on a pig.
In fact, they’re worse, much worse, than a skin-deep brush with porcine cosmetology. They are part of a calculated exploitation of the deep human spiritual need to push other people around from time to time.
As Anna Farrow, executive director of Montreal’s English Speaking Catholic Council, puts it far more diplomatically, though no less critically: “The government has rolled this out from the beginning as a fait accompli. It has essentially said: ‘We have the right to do this because we are in power. This is our vision for Quebec. Too bad for you if it doesn’t coincide with your vision of Quebec.’”
Farrow points out the blurring of aggressiveness and absurdity in that vision by noting that Bill 21, as the legislation is known, will be troublesome to enforce.
“Now, say you have two women teaching in a school. One wears a hijab. One wears a religious medal displaying her faith by a chain around her neck. You have to treat them both the same under the law. You certainly can’t be seen to discriminate. So what’s the procedure? What’s the protocol? Do you call the teachers into the office and say if it happens again, it’s grounds for dismissal? What happens when someone says, as someone is sure to, ‘No, I’m not taking it off!’?”
No one in the government of Premier Francois Legault seems to have foreseen such a circumstance. When Quebec’s deputy premier suggested the police might be called in the face of such disobedience, Legault threw himself across that as if it were a live political grenade and insisted that was not going to happen.
The government’s hearings, meanwhile, won’t hear from many believers directly.
Only two of 36 groups invited to testify have any kind of connection with religious faith
Instead, almost all religious groups will have to submit briefs through a volunteer grassroots group called Coalition Inclusion Quebec at a Consultation Populaire.
The coalition will then collate the written objections and present them on behalf of Quebec citizens excluded from addressing their government themselves.
At a recent protest organized by Coalition Inclusion Quebec outside Montreal City Hall, speaker after speaker decried the exclusion of faith groups not only from the Bill 21 legislative hearings but from full participation in Quebec public life.
Intriguingly, one of the most compelling voices to address the group came from a young teacher who identified herself as first and foremost a feminist.
“I am not a religious believer. I do not wear religious clothing. I am a feminist. But as a feminist, I believe in choice. And Bill 21 takes away the right of Quebecers to make their own choices,” she said to loud applause from the demonstrators.
The theme that developed in the demonstration speeches was that Bill 21 attacks religious freedom, yes, but it also assaults freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom from workplace harassment and intimidation. Indeed, next to the concerns expressed about religious discrimination were stinging criticism about its violation of workplace norms in a democratic, open contemporary society.
Given that Bill 21 is at least the third attempt in recent years to push such legislation through the National Assembly, there’s an understandable fatigue among many defenders of religious freedom. That has led to a weakening of the fight. It’s exacerbated by the government’s decision to use the Charter of Rights’ override clause to prevent it being challenged on constitutional grounds.
So the deep desire to push others around does seem, in this instance, bound to win. The question to be answered, though, is whether Bill 21’s advocates can prevail in using a pragmatically unenforceable law to impose their will on a rapidly diversifying population.
Or to put a happier face on it, how often do bullies turn out to be their own worst enemies?
Peter Stockland is a senior writer with the think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.