Retired senator rebuked for linking hijab with female circumcision, forced marriage

For the second time this week, the Quebec government is forced to distance itself from a supporter of its secularism bill who made incendiary remarks about Islam at a legislative hearing.

Céline Hervieux-Payette draws fire on 3rd day of hearings into Quebec's controversial Bill 21

Retired senator Céline Hervieux-Payette linked wearing a hijab with 'circumcision [and] forced marriage' during Thursday's hearings on Quebec's secularism bill, drawing a rebuke from both opponents and the province's immigration minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

For the second time this week, the Quebec government has been forced to distance itself from a supporter of its secularism bill who made incendiary remarks about Islam at a legislative hearing.

The bill proposes barring some civil servants — including public teachers, police officers and Crown lawyers — from wearing religious symbols.

It has drawn widespread criticism from legal experts who say it violates religious freedom and discriminates against Muslim women who wear the hijab. Opponents have also warned it risks fuelling  intolerance in the province.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government, which has a majority, is using the six days of hearings to build broader support for Bill 21, trying to speed its passage through the National Assembly. 

But the government's attempt to portray the bill as a moderate response to the wishes of the majority were undermined early in Thursday's session.  

Retired senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, who was among those invited by the government to speak in support of the bill, told the commission: "The veil is a detail. What goes with it is circumcision [and] forced marriage at 14 and 15 years of age."

Bill 21's sponsor, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, right, appealed for witnesses to use moderate language before the legislative committee. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Hervieux-Payette appeared to be paraphrasing Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist who gave up her Muslim faith and regularly describes Islam as inherently violent and oppressive. Ali has made similar remarks in the past. Two of Ali's books were next to Hervieux-Payette during her appearance.

The Liberal secularism critic, Hélène David, expressed concern about Hervieux-Payette's comments, asking her to clarify whether she thought genital mutilation and forced marriages pose a danger to Quebecers.

"You can't be naive," said Hervieux-Payette, who served as a Liberal senator between 1995 and 2016 and spoke at the hearings on behalf of a group of lawyers who support Bill 21. 

"Even people who live here send their children to certain countries where circumcision is done. They have to do it elsewhere than here because it's illegal … But it's also done by neighbours."

Hervieux-Payette did not offer any evidence to support this claim. 

At that point, the chair of the legislative committee, André Bachand, intervened, asking Hervieux-Payette to demonstrate "great caution" in her remarks.

Appeals for calm, again

Not long after her testimony wrapped up, the bill's sponsor — Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette — assembled journalists to make clear he disagreed with Hervieux-Payette's comments. 

"I don't at all share the remarks made by Mrs. Hervieux-Payette about the link between the hijab and circumcision and I denounce them," he said.

Jolin-Barrette reiterated an appeal he's made several times since tabling the bill in March: debate its advantages and disadvantages calmly.

On the first day of the hearings, a prominent critic of Islam, Djemila Benhabib, testified that women who refuse to remove their hijab at work are 'fundamentalists.' (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

But Thursday's session provided another reminder that doing so is easier said than done. On the first day of the hearings, a prominent critic of Islam, Djemila Benhabib, testified that women who refuse to remove their hijab at work are "fundamentalists."

That prompted Premier François Legault to make clear he disagreed with Benhabib's characterization. "Let's be careful with labels," he said.

The only person so far who has worn a religious symbol at the hearings, Samira Laouni, of the non-profit group Communication pour l'ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, said the bill sent the message to Muslims that they weren't welcome in Quebec.

Wearing a hijab during her appearance Wednesday, Laouni said the bill will "legitimize discimination."

Some feminists have countered that suggestion, arguing that banning religious symbols from the public service is necessary to safeguard gender equality. 

Heavily intellectual

Along with the flashpoints over Islam, there have been some tense exchanges between Jolin-Barrette and critics of the bill. He has often questioned whether they respect the legitimacy of the government to enshrine secularism in law. 

But the hearings have also been heavily intellectual at times. A running list of the thinkers invoked so far includes philosophers John Locke (on the separation of church and state), Montesquieu (on checks and balances) and Hannah Arendt (on freedom of thought).

The hearings will resume on Tuesday. Among those expected to testify are unions, school boards and the City of Montreal.

Some of these groups have expressed reservations about how to apply the law. Others have called for it to be extended even further, such as to daycare workers or more sectors of the civil service.


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.


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