Quebec lawmakers told secularism bill will institutionalize discrimination, stoke Islamophobia

It wasn't until late on the second day of hearings into Quebec's secularism bill that lawmakers heard from someone who wears one of the religious symbols targeted by the legislation.

Plan to ban religious symbols will lead to minorities being harmed, activist says

'The message being received by Muslims ... is that they're not welcome in Quebec,' said Samira Laouni at the Bill 21 hearings in Quebec City. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

It wasn't until late on the second day of hearings into Quebec's secularism bill that lawmakers heard from someone who wears one of the religious symbols targeted by the legislation.

But by the time Samira Laouni wrapped up her testimony, the committee was confronted with a detailed description of Islamophobia in Quebec and arguments why the proposed law would only make it worse. 

Wearing a purple hijab, or Muslim head covering, in the National Assembly's "red room," Laouni said that by seeking to bar some civil servants — including public school teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs, skullcaps or turbans, the government was sending a message. 

"The message being received by Muslims ... is that they're not welcome in Quebec," Laouni said, speaking for Communication pour l'ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, a non-profit group that promotes inter-cultural dialogue.

"That's clearly not the message the government wants to send."

She expressed concerns that by singling out some religious groups more than others — such as Muslim women — the bill was contributing to intolerance. The bill, she said, will "legitimize discimination."

'This bill is actually institutionalizing discrimination,' said Haroun Bouazzi, a well-known anti-racism activist in Montreal, after presenting his brief on the second day of legislative hearings into Bill 21. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette appeared to be skeptical when Laouni described "radical secularists" who were whipping up hatred against Muslims.

"Maybe our elected officials should read our Facebook pages to see what we're subjected to everyday," she said later in the hearing.

"There has been a normalization of hatred in Quebec."

Bill amounts to 'institutionalizing discrimination:' anti-racism activist

Laouni's group was accompanied by several members of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, the Quebec City mosque where six people were killed in 2017 by a gunman radicalized by the white nationalist movement. 

She said representatives of the cultural centre had also asked to speak at the commission but were denied a spot. Several other religious groups have criticized the government for leaving them out of the hearings.

The only Muslim group that did receive an invitation, the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la laïcité au Québec, addressed the hearings earlier Wednesday. 

Speaking for the group, Haroun Bouazzi said it was members of racialized communities who would be harmed most by the religious symbols ban in the public service. 

"This bill is actually institutionalizing discrimination," said Bouazzi, a well-known anti-racism activist in Montreal, following his appearance at the hearing. 

Gérard Bouchard's testimony was highly anticipated. He co-authored a landmark study in 2008 on religious symbols in Quebec. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

The head of Quebec's human rights commission, Philippe-André Tessier, who testified late yesterday evening, made similar remarks. The bill will force people to either change their religious practices or risk losing their job, said Tessier.

"That, in other words, is discrimination," he said. "There aren't 1,000 different ways to say that." 

Hamburger man and the lack of evidence

The Coalition Avenir Québec government acknowledges that its bill would limit an individual right, namely the right to religious freedom.

But the government argues that doing so is necessary in order to finally resolve Quebec's long debate over how to accommodate minorities, and preserve the province's distinct collective identity.

The bill, moreover, invokes the notwithstanding clause, which the government hopes will spare it from being challenged in court on grounds it violates the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights.

In many of his questions to the committee's witnesses, Jolin-Barrette has sought their opinion on whether the government is justified in limiting a right and invoking the notwithstanding clause.

The famed sociologist Gerard Bouchard, who co-authored a landmark study in 2008 on religious accommodations, agreed that sometimes it's OK to violate a fundamental right if it's for a greater good.

Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette took issue with Bouazzi's comments on how laws restricting women's freedom were passed following a referendum in Iran. 'I don't think these comments have their place here,' said Jolin-Barrette. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"Where is the greater good that would render this limitation legitimate? I don't see it," Bouchard said during his highly anticipated testimony Wednesday afternoon. 

There is no evidence, he said, that religious symbols traumatize students or lead to radicalization. 

"If just one of those elements were proven, I would support your bill, because then there would be higher principle," he said.

Bouchard is adamantly opposed to the bill in its current form, saying it makes the province look intolerant in the eyes of the world.

The bill's critics on the committee — the Liberals and Québec Solidaire — have repeatedly asked its backers to provide evidence of the threat to Quebec society that the legislation would address. 

On Wednesday, the committee heard from two educators who argued that when teachers wear religious symbols, it harms gender equality.

They were asked by Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti whether they had any data to show a link between Islamic radicalization and the hijab. 

"Do you need studies to show that the McDonald's hamburger man encourages people to eat more hamburgers?" replied Nadia El-Mabrouk, a Université de Montreal computer science professor and well-known advocate for secularism.

The hearings continue Thursday before adjourning for the weekend.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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