Montreal

Fears of 'secularism police' raised by CAQ's last-minute changes to religious symbols bill

In the final hours before Bill 21 was passed late Sunday, the Coalition Avenir Québec government introduced several amendments, including provisions to ensure the law is being followed and to impose disciplinary measures if it is not.

'It was never discussed, it's unacceptable,' Liberal MNA says of amendments

Quebec Premier François Legault is applauded by Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette after passing the CAQ's secularism legislation. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Quebec's opposition is warning last-minute changes to the Coalition Avenir Québec's religious symbols law open the door to the establishment of "secularism police."

In the final hours before Bill 21 was passed late Sunday, the CAQ introduced several amendments, including provisions to ensure the law is being followed and to impose disciplinary measures if it is not.

Liberal MNA Marc Tanguay, who voted against the bill, said the changes would lead to what he described as "secularism police.''

"It was never discussed, it's unacceptable," Tanguay said on Twitter.

Sol Zanetti, an MNA for Québec Solidaire, the second opposition party, also expressed concern. 

"They wanted to modifications at the last minute that we couldn't have the time to analyze [them]," he said.

Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti sings a poem as he delivers his final remarks before voting against Bill 21 on Sunday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The legislative session was originally scheduled to be suspended for the summer break last Friday.

However, members of the National Assembly sat through the weekend after the CAQ used its majority to invoke closure and put an end to debate over Bill 21, as well as its contentious immigration legislation, Bill 9.

The secularism law bars public school teachers, government lawyers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols while at work.

The bill passed 73 to 35, with the CAQ as well as the Parti Québécois, the third opposition party, voting in favour.

Not police, but 'verification,' CAQ says

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette rejected the opposition's characterization of the amendments to Bill 21, saying they are meant simply to ensure the law is followed. 

He said the government needs the power to ensure institutions, such as school boards, comply with the new rules.

School teachers hired after March 28 will not be allowed to wear religious symbols. Those already on the job are to be exempted under a grandfather clause.

"If a school board doesn't respect the bill, we have the power of verification to see why they don't respect the bill," Jolin-Barrette said.

The English Montreal School Board has already said it will not enforce the law.

Religious groups and legal experts have argued the law unfairly discriminates against minorities, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab. 

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced they are challenging the law Monday.

A protest is also planned for Montreal.

Jolin-Barrette, who tabled the legislation, reiterated Monday the secularism law was long overdue, after years of debate over religious accommodation in the province.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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