Montreal

CAQ government ignoring Montreal's diversity with secularism bill, Plante tells lawmakers

The mayor of Quebec's biggest city accused the provincial government on Tuesday of rushing ahead with a controversial proposal to restrict religious symbols without considering the harm it will cause Montreal's diverse population.

Montreal mayor says Quebec hasn't thought enough about how Bill 21 will impact immigrant women

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, seen just before her appearance before the committee, told lawmakers: 'I consider it my duty, as mayor of Montreal, to speak for those who will be affected by this law.' (Cathy Senay/CBC)

The mayor of Quebec's biggest city accused the provincial government on Tuesday of rushing ahead with a controversial proposal to restrict religious symbols without considering the harm it will cause Montreal's diverse population. 

At a legislative hearing in Quebec City, Valérie Plante said the government had failed to take into account how Bill 21 — the so-called secularism bill — will impact minority communities in general, and immigrant women in particular.

"I am totally aware that Montrealers are not unanimous in their opinions about this bill," Plante said in her opening remarks to the committee.

"But I consider it my duty, as mayor of Montreal, to speak for those who will be affected by this law."

If passed, Bill 21 will bar civil servants — including public teachers, government lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while at work.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government has defended the bill from accusations it will encourage discrimination, saying it applies equally to all religions, as well as to both men and women.

Plante rejected that argument. She said unemployment rates are already much higher for immigrant women than other sectors of the population.

Opposition to Bill 21 has been focused largely in Montreal, where several protests against the draft legislation have been held since March. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

By limiting where Muslim women who wear the hijab can work, Plante said, the government was only adding a further obstacle to their integration into the workforce.

She urged the government to take more time to study whether the legislation will impact men and women differently.

"This law will not have the same impact on men as it will for women. I think it's important to think critically about that," she said in response to a question from Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor.

Montreal-Quebec tensions 

The Montreal mayor's appearance at the Bill 21 hearings came amid growing differences between her administration and the provincial government.

Though the CAQ enjoys a sizeable majority, it only won two seats on the island of Montreal.

Its centre-right approach to issues such as immigration and public transit are often at adds with the more left-leaning priorities at Montreal city hall.

The two governments have clashed, for instance, on the CAQ's attempts to lower immigration levels. And Montreal's pleas for money to fund a new Metro line have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. 

Plante, though, often struck a collaborative tone during her remarks Tuesday. She reaffirmed her intention to obey the law, and said she supported the government's goal of defending secularism.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, argued with Plante over whether the government is right to invoke the notwithstanding clause. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

But her critiques of the bill were also wide-ranging. She said the government lacked evidence demonstrating the merits of its proposal; she questioned whether the new dress rules would be applicable; and she warned the government it was heightening social tensions by pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause.

The CAQ government hopes that by invoking the clause, the law will be spared court challenges on grounds it violates fundamental rights, such as religious freedom.

Plante said that move is contributing to concerns about the legitimacy of what the government is trying to do.

"You have to let people feel that the mechanisms of democracy are available to them," she said. "We're sensing a feeling of powerlessness."

Montreal's 'different reality'

Questions from the two opposition parties who intend to vote against the bill — the Liberals and Québec Solidaire — focused the polarized debate around the draft legislation.

Plante expressed fears the eventual law will encourage harassment of religious minorities and contribute to their isolation.

Plante's appearance at the Bill 21 hearings came amid growing differences between her administration and Premier François Legault's government. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
 

"In Montreal, we have a reality that can be different from other cities in Quebec," she said, following a question from a Liberal MNA.

"In Montreal, cultures mix ... on a daily basis. I want to make sure that social cohesion isn't called into question. But at the moment, there is a lot of tension. I'm not going to hide it from you."

The hearings resume Wednesday, and will wrap up Thursday. Premier François Legault wants the bill passed by mid-June.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He is currently covering the federal election in Quebec.

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