Quebec is divided, polarized as hearings set to begin on secularism bill

Public hearings into Bill 21, Quebec's proposed secularism law, begin this week in Quebec City. Debate over the bill has been fierce in parts of the province, less so in others.

Debate over the bill has been fierce in parts of the province, less so in others

More than 100 people attended at demonstration in Montreal on Saturday in support of the government's secularism bill. Police kept them apart from a counter-demonstration organized by the bill's opponents. (Vincent Champagne/Radio-Canada)

Racha Cheaib, a particle physicist, often helps organize an annual event at a Muslim community centre in Montreal to celebrate girls who decide to wear the hijab.

Last year, far-right groups sought to disrupt the event, and twice succeeded in getting it relocated.

The social climate in Quebec, said Cheaib, hasn't improved since then. Her preparations this year included requesting a police presence and avoiding all mention of the event on social media.

"Since the bill was tabled we noticed that there was a large surge of negativity," Cheaib said during a recent interview at the bustling community centre in north-end Montreal.

She was referring to Bill 21, a proposed law that the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec government is hoping to rush through the legislature before the summer break.

If passed in its current form, the law would bar wide swathes of the provincial civil service from wearing religious symbols, including police officers, judges and public school teachers.

'It's always been a challenge, being a woman wearing a hijab in Quebec. It's only become a greater challenge now,' said Racha Cheaib, English spokesperson for Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Though the draft legislation doesn't refer to specific religions, Muslim women who wear the hijab feel particularly targeted. Teaching jobs had been a popular choice for many. 

When the bill was introduced, Premier François Legault called for a "calm debate" about its merits.

But online, in print, and in the streets of Montreal, the discussion has been anguished and acrimonious.

After Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante declared her opposition to the bill, she received a slew of violent threats via social media. The mayor's security detail has been strengthened as a result.

The mayor of another Montreal-area municipality, Hampstead's William Steinberg, was roundly criticized for comparing the bill to "ethnic cleansing."

There have been several protests in the city, each several hundred strong, denouncing the bill for trouncing individual rights.

On Saturday, several people affiliated with far-right groups attended a demonstration in favour of Bill 21. Two people were arrested as police kept them apart from a counter-demonstration that included far-left groups.

Opponents of Bill 21 formed a human chain around Montreal's interim city hall building on Sunday. (Radio-Canada)

Cheaib worries the bill has fanned the flames of intolerance in the province, even if that wasn't the government's intention.   

"It's always been a challenge, being a woman wearing a hijab in Quebec. It's only become a greater challenge now," she said.

"Unfortunately, this law has given those that discriminate — it's kind of strengthened them. We feel they're becoming louder."

Things look different from Quebec City

So far, opposition to the bill is most visible in Montreal. It hasn't triggered the same kind of emotional debate elsewhere in the province. 

"We don't feel that tension in Quebec City," said Sol Zanetti, who holds a downtown riding there for Québec Solidaire, a left-wing party that is staunchly opposed to Bill 21. "There is a relative social calm here."

Zanetti attributed some of the support the bill enjoys to the conservative pundits who write for the tabloid Journal de Montréal, the largest-circulation daily in the province. He accused them of whipping up fears about religious symbols and using rhetoric that further divides Quebecers on the issue.

Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti attributed some of the support the bill enjoys to the conservative pundits who write for the tabloid Journal de Montréal, the largest-circulation daily in the province. (Daniel Coulombe/Radio-Canada)

"They have a huge platform and that obviously influences public opinion," he said.

Advocates of the bill, for their part, are surprised it has attracted as much opposition as it has in Montreal. They too blame the media, but for stirring up dissent.

"There is a gap in understanding between the two sides," said Francine Lavoie, a retired teacher who heads a pro-secularism lobby group in Quebec City.

"When I see [on TV] a charismatic young woman say she will put her hijab, her religion, before her career, before everything — we don't understand. I've never understood that."

Lavoie helped form the group around a decade ago, at a moment when she felt too many institutions in Quebec were accommodating the religious preferences of minorities.

Since then, there have been two failed attempts to pass legislation dealing with so-called reasonable accommodations, including the Parti Québécois's Charter of Values.

Premier François Legault has suggested he will force a vote on the bill before the legislature's summer recess. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

The previous Liberal government managed to pass an accommodation bill last year, but its most controversial sections — forcing people to give and receive government services with their faces uncovered — was suspended by a court ruling.

With a strong majority, Lavoie feels the current government is in a position to finally limit the presence of religious symbols in Quebec's public sphere.

"The last 10 years have sorted things out. Things are clear now," she said. "We can debate the details until the law is passed, but the vast majority of the population wants this."

Hearings begin Tuesday

The CAQ government also often appeals to public figures who have suggested there is support for restricting religious symbols.

Polling experts, though, note that attitudes toward religious symbols are notoriously difficult to measure.

Legault has nevertheless indicated he wants the bill passed by the summer, and has suggested he is willing to use his majority to cut off debate and force a vote if necessary.

'This law is crushing my dream,' said Nour Farhat, a lawyer currently studying for a master's degree in criminal law. She wants to become a criminal prosecutor, but would be unable to wear her hijab in court if Bill 21 is passed. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Public hearings into the bill begin Tuesday at the National Assembly. Only six days have been set aside to hear testimony from dozens of experts and interest groups.

That tight timeframe has drawn criticism from opposition parties, who say legislating on the most divisive issue of the last decade in Quebec politics requires more time.

Those who would be affected most directly by the bill, such as Muslims, also worry the witness list, which is controlled by the government, skews toward those who support the government's position.

For instance, the Canadian Muslim Forum, a non-proft group that's worked for more than 20 years to facilitate the integration of Muslim immigrants in Quebec, is one of several groups critical of the bill who weren't given a spot at the hearings. 

"The most targeted communities, the most affected communities ... they were not given the place to express their point of view," said the group's president, Samer Majzoub, while attending an anti-bill 21 protest in Montreal on Sunday.

"In a democratic society, democratic system, the least we can say is that this is scandalous."

A message from either side

Legault's government has shown no signs of wavering on the bill's contents. In fact, the bill includes a notwithstanding clause, which could spare it from court challenges based on claims it violates religious freedom.

Even opposition parties are resigned that it will pass; it's just a question of when.

And so what happens when that day comes? What will the opposing sides of the debate have to say to each other then?

"My message is that they have to accept that in Quebec, as the premier said, this is how we live. We would like there to be an acceptance of this law and that it be obeyed," Lavoie said.

When told of Lavoie's message, Cheaib offered a response:

"Most of us are born in Quebec at this point. So there's no accept and obey. It should be: tolerate and accept differences."


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