Opposition parties oppose allowing Montreal police officers to wear religious head coverings

Quebec's main opposition parties are vowing to block Montreal from admitting police officers who wear religious symbols, after the mayor came out in support of the idea.

'Montreal is not an island unto itself,' PQ secularism critic says

Insp. Baltej Singh Dhillon is now a 27-year veteran of the RCMP. But when he applied to join the RCMP in 1988, he had to fight for his right to wear a beard and turban. (Canada: The Story of Us)

Quebec's main opposition parties are vowing to block Montreal from admitting police officers who wear religious symbols, after the mayor came out in support of the idea.

The Parti Québécois, Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire all came out against the idea on Wednesday.

"Montreal is not an island unto itself," said the PQ's secularism critic, Agnès Maltais. "It's part of a greater society and has to conform to provincial regulations." 

CAQ leader François Legault tweeted: "It is time to deal with this issue responsibly once and for all. Bring on October 1."

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée noted there is no law now barring police from wearing religious symbols.

The parties were reacting to Mayor Valérie Plante, who said she is open to allowing Montreal police officers to wear religious headgear such as a turban or hijab while in uniform.

"We need to work with the SPVM to see how we can move forward with making sure that all types of Montrealers, if they want to be a police officer, can access the job," Plante said.

Quest for greater diversity

Snowdon Coun. Marvin Rotrand has been pressing Montreal police to adopt a more welcome stance. He wrote a letter to the city's administration asking for Montreal to follow the lead of other cities, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Montreal police recently launched a campaign to hire more visible minorities, but has struggled with its recruitment efforts.

"I think Montreal needs to make that extra effort to make people feel welcome here," Rotrand wrote.

"People have to feel that their qualities are appreciated, that their skills are recognized and that they have the ability to get a job if they are qualified."

Rotrand said he was particularly inspired to act by federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who served with the Vancouver police before embarking on a career in the Canadian Armed Forces.

But the question of religious neutrality in the public service is not a straightforward one in Quebec.

Agents of the state, specifically police officers, judges and others who exercise coercive authority, were singled out in the Bouchard-Taylor commission report as roles that required absolute neutrality when it came to conspicuous religious symbols.

The 2008 report was the culmination of months of public hearings held in an attempt to address the impact of religious accommodation on Quebec's identity and values.

Religious accommodation

"It's surprising to see, 10 years later, this question resurfacing," Lawyer Julie Latour, who served as head of the Quebec Bar in 2006-2007, told Radio-Canada.

"It shows that this move toward secularism isn't finished … and that we can't do it in pieces."

Latour said rather than leave it up to each municipality to make such decisions, the province needs to set the standard for neutrality.

Wafa Dabbagh was the first member of the Canadian military to wear a hijab. (Chris Mikula/Postmedia News)

But the political and social climate in Quebec has shifted since the Bouchard-Taylor report was released a decade ago.

Last year, one of the authors of the report, Charles Taylor, wrote an open letter in La Presse backing away from the recommendation and citing the deep divisions that the debate over what constitutes secular neutrality was causing in Quebec.

He said some cultural communities were being stigmatized in the discussion around limiting certain rights to religious expression.

Rotrand has been pushing the Montreal police on the issue for some time. In 2016, the police service told him that there is no policy specifically prohibiting the wearing of the hijab. Neither is there one specifically addressing it.

Police said at the time that the organization was open to looking at the issue further if a request was made.

Rotrand said he's pushing the issue with the city's administration because he believes wider cultural representation in the police service is important.

He said one person in three living in Montreal is a member of a visible minority, and a large portion of its citizens are immigrants.

Plante said she will work with the Montreal police to determine what the next steps might be.

With files from Angelica Montgomery