British Columbia

Quebec court's ruling on religious symbols ban denounced by B.C.'s Sikh community

A Quebec Superior Court judge's decision Tuesday to uphold that province's ban on religious symbols in the public service has a member of Kelowna's Sikh community concerned it could help erode hard won minority rights in other parts of the country.

'This bill represents an extreme ideology … [and] it hurts minorities'

A protester at a Montreal rally holds a sign that says, 'Bill 21 equals systemic discrimination.' (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

A Quebec Superior Court judge's decision Tuesday to uphold that province's ban on religious symbols in the public service has a member of Kelowna's Sikh community concerned it could help erode hard won minority rights in other parts of the country.

Enacted in 2019, Bill 21 enforces Quebec secularism prohibiting public servants from wearing religious symbols at work such as the hijab, turban or skullcap.

On Tuesday, Justice Marc-André Blanchard ruled that Bill 21 violates the basic rights of religious minorities in the province, but the violations are permitted under the Canadian Constitution's notwithstanding clause.

The notwithstanding clause allows provincial or federal authorities to override or essentially ignore sections of the charter they do not like for a five-year period, although it can be re-enacted indefinitely.

It was created as a power-sharing compromise between federal and provincial officials during the debate over a new constitution in the 1980s.

Harpreet Singh, who lives in Kelowna and is a member of the World Sikh Organization, which was involved in the legal action as an intervenor, says he worries that other jurisdictions could invoke the Quebec precedent to introduce laws that erode minority rights.

"This bill represents an extreme ideology … [and] it hurts minorities," Singh said Thursday to Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South. "This [the Quebec Superior Court's decision] is a national crisis."

Several Canadian cities, including Victoria, Kelowna, Calgary and Edmonton, voted to denounce Bill 21 in 2019. 

Montreal teacher Amrit Kaur says she moved to Surrey, B.C., that same year, so she could continue to wear a turban while working as a teacher.

Singh says it's a serious issue. 

"Think about the limited cognitive skills of the students who have never learned from a teacher of a minority community in the public schools," Singh said. "What I'm seeing here is that the problem is grave. It is moving in a direction which is wrong."

Harpreet Singh, a Kelowna member of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, says he's worried the Quebec decision could lead to an erosion of minority rights in other parts of the country. (Submitted by Harpreet Singh)

However, in Tuesday's decision, the Quebec court exempted English language school boards from its ruling. Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette says the province will appeal the decision.

Singh says his organization is also reviewing the ruling to see if it can be challenged.

Tap the link below to hear Harpreet Singh's interview on Daybreak South:

A Kelowna resident who is with the World Sikh Organization and an intervener in the case says the controversial law could lead to further discrimination in BC 7:16

With files from Daybreak South, Jonathan Montpetit, Zameer Karim and Meera Bains

now