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At Quebec secularism bill hearings, government challenged to say why trampling religious rights is necessary

After spending all day hearing from defenders of his secularism bill, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was confronted Tuesday evening with a challenge from a wispy-haired, 87-year-old philosopher.

Quebec's Legislature opens 2 weeks of hearings into controversial bill

'We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary,' Charles Taylor, left, told Immigration Simon Jolin-Barrette at Tuesday's hearings into Bill 21. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

After spending all day hearing from defenders of his secularism bill, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was confronted Tuesday evening with a challenge from a wispy-haired, 87-year-old philosopher. 

"We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary," Charles Taylor told Jolin-Barrette at legislative hearing in Quebec City.

If passed, the bill would bar Quebec civil servants in positions of authority — including public teachers, police officers and Crown prosecutors — from wearing garments like the kippa or hijab while at work.

Just over a decade ago, Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard co-authored a landmark government study into how best to accommodate religious minorities. 

In response to Taylor's challenge, Jolin-Barrette argued that large parts of his bill were inspired by the Bouchard-Taylor report. But Taylor replied they never recommended stripping teachers of the right to wear religious symbols. 

"No right is without a limit," Taylor said. He added, though, that trampling on fundamental rights — such as religious freedom — required a good reason, something the government had yet to provide.

That point was echoed in later testimony by Quebec's human rights commission and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, one of only two religious groups invited to speak at the hearings.

"We don't think the government has demonstrated that there is a serious threat to secularism in Quebec," said Dan-Michaël Abécassis of CIJA. 

Taylor has since backed away from one of the most discussed recommendations of the 2008 report, which suggested that police and judges not be allowed to display signs of their faith.

Watch Charles Taylor argue why Bill 21 has a particular impact on Muslim women:

While Bill 21 does not target one religion specifically, Charles Taylor argues it must be understood in the context of a society "full of Islamophobia." 0:59

He changed his mind, he said, when he saw the consequences of proposing limits on religious expression. 

"Campaigning on this issue stirs up hate," Taylor said. "You can't exaggerate the alienation this causes for minorities."

Taylor testified alongside Jocelyn Maclure, a Université Laval philosopher who also worked on the Bouchard-Taylor report. Maclure issued his own challenge to the government: produce studies that show religious symbols by themselves lead to conversion.

"I'm still waiting to see those studies because they don't exist," Maclure said.  

Muslim women equated with 'fundamentalists'

The two philosophers were the first critics of the bill to appear before the committee on the first of six days of hearings into the draft legislation.

All the groups who testified to that point backed the bill, even suggesting it go further. They want to see it applied to private school teachers and daycare workers.

Some of these groups didn't hesitate to use fiery language to describe the danger of not passing strict limits on religious symbols in the civil service.

Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken secularism advocate, equated Muslim women who refuse to remove their hijab at work with extremists. 

"Women who wear the hijab … are engaging in emotional blackmail when they say they won't take it off. I consider them to be fundamentalists," said Benhabib, who represent a group called Collectif citoyen pour l'égalité et la laïcité.

(Premier François Legault disagreed with Benhabib's characterization, saying: "Let's be careful with the labels.")

'The government of Quebec is convinced it has found the right balance between individual rights and collective rights,' Jolin-Barrette said as he opened the hearings. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Another group speaking for secular North Africans tabled a document that said women who wear the hijab "aren't really Muslim." 

The Liberal secularism critic, Hélène David, asked the group what they thought about women who wear the hijab by choice.

"You don't understand indoctrination," she was told by Ferid Chikhi.

Will government make concessions?  

The Coalition Avenir Québec has a strong majority, and has indicated it wants to pass by the bill by the end of June. 

But Legault has also said he wants to build broader support among the opposition parties, if possible. So far, only the Parti Québéois has expressed any openness.

The price of their support, the PQ interim leader said Tuesday, is extending the bill to private schools and daycares, as well as clarifying how it will be enforced.

Djemila Benhabib, representing the Collectif citoyen pour l'égalité et la laïcité, said Tuesday that some Muslim women who wear the hijab are 'fundamentalists.' (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, told reporters before the hearings began that the government wouldn't negotiate on a number of points. Chief among them, he said, was the bill's invocation of the notwithstanding clause.

That would protect the eventual law from court challenges based on claims it violates religious freedoms.

Along with the measures targeting teachers, the use of the nothwithstanding clause is arguably the bill's most controversial feature, roundly denounced by legal experts and civil rights advocates. 

Jolin-Barrette opened the hearings by addressing the widespread criticism the draft legislation has attracted. He said the 2018 election gave the government a clear mandate to move forward with its proposals.

"The government of Quebec is convinced it has found the right balance between individual rights and collective rights," he said.

About the Author

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

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