As Canadians seek to confront anti-Muslim bias, Quebec's Bill 21 is under scrutiny once again

In the wake of the deadly vehicle attack in London, Ont., scrutiny is once again being brought to bear on Quebec's secularism law. That has rankled many in Quebec — even critics of the law.

Bill 21 is facing renewed backlash from the rest of Canada, making even the Quebec law's critics uneasy

Khalida Ashram and her daughter, Anila, mourn at the scene of what police have called a hate-motivated attack in London, Ont. The hit-and-run killed four members of one Muslim family, leaving behind only a nine-year-old boy who remains in hospital. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

The vehicle attack in London, Ont., earlier this week, which killed all but one young member of the Afzaal family, was the third time in the last four years that Muslims in Canada have been murdered because of their faith.

Since the suspected anti-Muslim motive was revealed on Monday, a collective soul searching has been underway.

As in 2020, following a fatal stabbing at an Etobicoke mosque, and in 2017, when six Muslims were shot to death in Quebec City, many are now trying to identify the sources of Islamophobia in the country.

This time, attention quickly turned to Quebec's Laicity Act, the law passed in 2019 that bans public teachers, police officers and government lawyers, among other civil servants, from wearing religious symbols at work.

Though the law — commonly referred to as Bill 21 — doesn't mention any one religion, it particularly affects Muslim women who wear the hijab, and for whom public teaching had once been a popular career choice.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a moment of silence in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday in recognition of the recent tragedy in London, Ont. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At a news conference Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked three times, by three different reporters, whether he would now speak out more forcefully against Bill 21.

"I have long expressed my disagreement with Bill 21," Trudeau said in response to one of the questions. "But I have also indicated that it is for Quebecers to challenge and defend their rights in court, which they have been doing."

Columnists from the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun and the Globe and Mail all argued that a serious approach to addressing Islamophobia required more strident criticism of Bill 21 from Trudeau and the other federal leaders.

Advocates for Ontario's Muslim community also pointed to the Quebec law as being among a panoply of state-backed measures that stigmatise Muslims.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, an Ismaili Muslim, made similar comments Tuesday, saying: "I can see the linkages between Quebec's Bill 21 and what we saw happen [in London]."

In Quebec, however, the criticism of Bill 21 was interpreted as an attempt by English Canada to blame the London attack on a law that was: a.) passed democratically, and b.) doesn't apply in Ontario.

"The comments illustrate the extent to which there is contempt in the rest of Canada for Quebecers and Quebec's democratic choices," said Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, whose party voted in favour of Bill 21.

WATCH | Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet discusses the London attack and Quebec's Bill 21

Blanchet responds to questions about London, Ont. vigil

2 years ago
Duration 1:51
Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, comments on why he did not speak at the London, Ont. vigil in honour of victims who were killed in what police are calling a hate-motivated attack. He also responds to a question about Quebec's Bill 21 from the CBC's David Thurton.

Within the nationalist paradigm that currently dominates Quebec politics, there is heightened sensitivity to suggestions that racism is widespread in the province. The implication of the accusation, it's felt, is that Quebecers are a backward people who would benefit from morality lessons from their betters in the rest of Canada.

That may explain why attempts to link Bill 21 to the London attack rankled even the fiercest opponents of the law.

"Mind your own business," the parliamentary leader of left-wing Québec Solidaire, Manon Massé, told the rest of Canada at a news conference Wednesday.

She then proceeded to blast Bill 21 for discriminating against women and causing fear among minorities.

Bill 21 becomes a rallying point

But Bill 21 isn't alone in being singled out for scrutiny this week.

Nenshi also said he saw a link between the London attack and recent changes to Alberta's school curriculum, saying it "others people who do not come from a European perspective."

Community advocates further pointed to intrinsic cultural biases in many counterterrorism measures, while others highlighted the opposition to a 2017 parliamentary motion that condemned Islamophobia.

One of the reasons Bill 21 finds itself in such company is because laws can convey social norms; they signal what behaviours are considered acceptable — and what aren't.

Kira Stephani, of Oshawa, Ont., talks with her daughter, Aisha Sayyed, at the scene of Sunday's vehicle attack in London, Ont. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

This point was made by McGill University psychologist Eric Hehman, who testified for an English school board that was among several groups challenging Bill 21's constitutionality in court last year.

A Quebec Superior Court judge ultimately upheld most of the law, but ruled that it couldn't be applied to English school boards in the province. The ruling cited a passage from Hehman's testimony.

"[Bill 21 is] likely to be perceived as conveying a norm about people who wear religious symbols … especially women who wear a hijab," he said. "It would be expected … therefore to result in increased prejudice toward these social groups and more negative outcomes for individuals belonging to these groups."

If a law conveys a social norm that prejudices Muslims, as Hehman suggests Bill 21 does, it is hardly surprising that many are asking whether it has contributed to Islamophobia.

When his government passed Bill 21 into law, Premier François Legault promised it would bring an end to acrimonious debates about the place of minorities in Quebec society.

Instead, this week, it's become a rallying point for those trying to hold governments, at all levels, accountable for the recurring hate-based violence in Canada.


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

With files from Cathy Senay