A guide to Quebec's new immigration and religious symbols laws: How we got here and what's next

Quebec is a different place after the Coalition Avenir Québec government adopted two laws reshaping the province's immigration system and imposing new rules on people who wear religious symbols. Here's a guide to what happened, and what's next.

5 key things to know about the controversial legislation passed by the Coalition Avenir Québec government

Yousra Khitouch, centre, was among the more than 300 protesters who took to the streets in Montreal to protest Bill 21 on Monday evening. (Claire Loewen/CBC)

Quebec is a different place now that the Coalition Avenir Québec government has adopted two laws reshaping the province's immigration system and limiting which civil servants can wear religious symbols in the workplace.

Here's a guide to what happened, and what comes next.

What's in the new laws?

The new secularism law, once known as Bill 21, makes it illegal to wear religious symbols at work if you're a public school teacher, a police officer, a judge, a prison guard, a wildlife officer, a Crown prosecutor or if you work as a lawyer for the government. It applies to other jobs too — the full list is here

The legislation also lays out the rules requiring citizens to uncover their faces to receive a public service for identification or security purposes.

The immigration law, tabled as Bill 9, allows the government to throw out a backlog of roughly 16,000 skilled immigrant worker applications as the province moves toward a new, merit-based application system.

It also lays the groundwork for a Quebec values test that would-be immigrants will need to pass in order to become a permanent resident. (The province needs the go-ahead from the federal government to impose such a test, and neither the Liberal government nor the opposition Conservatives appear keen to co-operate.)

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, left, is congratulated by Quebec Premier François Legault after passing the CAQ secularism bill into law Sunday after a marathon session at the National Assembly. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Why were politicians working on the weekend?

The CAQ government promised to have both laws in place by the summer. But by Friday, when the legislative session was due to be suspended for the summer, neither had been passed. So the government used its majority to extend the session by two days.

It also made use of a parliamentary mechanism called closure, drawing criticism from opposition parties which demanded more time to explore the legislation. Closure allows the government to force a vote on a bill after a two-hour question period and at least 12 hours of debate.

On Saturday, lawmakers entered the chamber of the National Assembly around 9 a.m. to begin the process of passing the immigration reform bill. A final vote was held around 4 a.m. They were back in the blue room at 9 a.m. Sunday to work on the religious symbols bill. That was passed around 10:30 p.m.

How will the religious symbols law be enforced?

The CAQ made last-minute changes to Bill 21, giving the government power to ensure institutions, such as school boards, comply with the law and imposing sanctions if they do not.

The English Montreal School Board said in the past it will not enforce the law. Opposition politicians warned the changes, introduced only hours before the law was passed, could result in a "secularism police."

Schoolteachers already on the job will be exempt from the religious symbols ban under a grandfather clause. But they will lose the exemption if they move to another school or take up another position, such as accepting a promotion to the principal's office. 

Will the laws be challenged in court?

The short answer: Yes. On Monday, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a motion in Quebec Superior Court seeking an injunction and asking that the law be declared invalid.

The immigration law was subject to a legal challenge earlier this year, even before it was passed into law, after the CAQ government put a hold on processing prospective immigrants as soon as the bill was tabled.

The government was ordered to continue processing applications until the law was adopted. The president of Quebec's association of immigration lawyers said they are considering a further challenge and will make a decision in the coming week.

Why did the CAQ make these laws a priority?

Both were key promises in last year's provincial election campaign, which resulted in a CAQ majority. Quebec Premier François Legault has argued the religious symbols law is necessary to ensure the secularism of the state and put an end to long-running debates in the province about how to accommodate cultural minorities.

Three previous governments tried and largely failed to address the issue over the last decade. The most recent attempt, by Philippe Couillard's Liberal government, was never fully implemented, after a Quebec court ruled a requirement that Quebecers unveil their faces to receive public services appeared to violate both the Canadian and Quebec charters.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said changes to the immigration system will help better match new arrivals with the needs of the job market in Quebec, which is experiencing a critical labour shortage.

However, in a separate move last December, the CAQ government cut the number of immigrants by 20 per cent for 2019.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.