Montreal

Quebec government adopts controversial religious symbols bill

Quebec's majority government has pushed through a controversial piece of legislation that will bar public-school teachers, government lawyers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols while at work. 

Religious symbols law, introduced as Bill 21, passed with a vote of 73-35

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, left, and Premier François Legault in National Assembly during yesterday's marathon legislative session on the immigration bill. On Sunday the religious symbols bill is under discussion. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's majority government has pushed through a controversial piece of legislation that will bar public-school teachers, government lawyers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols while at work. 

The bill, introduced by the Coalition Avenir Québec government, passed after a marathon weekend of deliberations at Quebec's National Assembly, in which the CAQ used a parliamentary mechanism called closure to speed through the passing of its two flagship law projects: an immigration reform and the secularism bill. 

The religious symbols ban, also known as Bill 21, passed with a vote of 73-35 at around 10:30 p.m. ET Sunday.

Closure shuts down the usual committee debate over a bill, and forces a vote after around 12 hours of additional discussion on the floor of the legislature.

It is the same mechanism the CAQ government used Saturday to force passage of a bill that aims to reduce delays in Quebec's immigration system by tossing out more than 16,000 pending applications for skilled worker status.

That bill, Bill 9, passed just after 4 a.m. EST Sunday, by a vote of 62-42.  

The larger number of votes for Bill 21 than Bill 9 is due to support from the Parti Québécois for the religious symbols bill.

The religious symbols bill has attracted widespread criticism from legal experts and minority groups, who worry it will institutionalize discrimination. They say Muslim women who wear the hijab will be disproportionately affected.

The bill also invokes the notwithstanding clause in an effort to spare it from court challenges about its constitutionality. Protests against the impending law are already being planned in Montreal for Monday.

Surveillance and enforcement measures

The government also added a number of last-minute amendments to the bill, including changes that would allow for surveillance and enforcement of the law. 

Liberal member Marc Tanguay, who voted against the bill, said the changes would result in a "secularism police.''

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has defended the legislation, which he sponsored, as a chance to safeguard Quebec's secular society.

Jolin-Barrette and Quebec Premier François Legault have argued that, according to polls, a majority of Quebecers want religious symbols to be prohibited on civil servants.

"I feel like saying finally. Finally, Quebecers have been heard and listened to. Finally, a government that had the courage to act," Jolin-Barrette said Sunday evening, shortly before the vote. 

The two largest opposition parties, the Liberals and Québec Solidaire, spent the day railing against the bill, saying it goes against people's fundamental rights.

Sol Zanetti, left, the secularism critic for Québec Solidaire, one of the province's two largest opposition parties, stood next to the party's co-spokesperson Manon Massé as he criticized the government's use of closure to push past a series of amendments to its controversial secularism bill before its adoption. (Radio-Canada)

Sol Zanetti, an MNA for Québec Solidaire, referenced other polls, with differently worded questions, that showed fewer Quebecers supported such a bill if it impinged people's rights. 

"Calling on a majority suffices for several things. It suffices for a public transit project. It suffices to enact public policies, but it does not suffice to go and break human rights," Zanetti said.

He said what Jolin-Barrette added to the bill "in fact, open the door to everything" regarding how the law will be enforced.

"Tonight, at the end of this closure, we understood, finally, why it was invoked," said Sol Zanetti, the secularism critic for Québec Solidaire, referring to the amendments. 

"Because amendments were introduced to use, one after the other, in bursts, and which are enormously worrying."

'Profoundly unjust'

Quebec Liberal MNA Helene David delivers her final remarks before voting against a legislation on secularism, at the National Assembly in Quebec City, Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"In no way does [state] secularism mean the banning of religious symbols," said Liberal secularism critic Hélène David.

"The minister is making the wrong choice. It's wrong because it is profoundly unjust. It will prevent employment access to women and men who are qualified. Unjust because some women will have to make a choice between a promotion, their career and a profound and sincere conviction," David said before Sunday's vote.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, David called it a "very sad day and night for Quebec."

"Tomorrow morning, a number of Quebecers will wake up with fewer rights than they had today," she said.

About the Author

Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Cathy Senay and Jonathan Montpetit

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