Montreal·Point of View

What Bill 21 means for my children: a hard lesson

Even though I knew it was coming, the announcement of Bill 21 still felt like a sucker punch, says mother Jennifer Guyver.

Explaining Bill 21 to my kids isn't easy as a Quebecer whose faith lies in values of human rights, diversity

Taran Singh is Sikh and wears a turban. Jennifer Guyver is Jewish. They are struggling with how to explain Bill 21 to their two children. (CBC)

Last October, my husband brought our two kids along to vote in the provincial election. They came back, eager to explain democracy and encouraged me to head to the polls.

No doubt, my children get a good amount of their enthusiasm from me. I always look forward to voting. It reminds me that I am blessed to live in a society where elections can occur peacefully, openly and regularly.

This time around, however, those good feelings didn't last very long.

The following day, Legault announced that his government would invoke the notwithstanding clause to prohibit public employees in certain positions from wearing religious symbols.

I can't say I was surprised. I've dedicated 12 years of graduate school to studying, teaching, and publishing on secularism in Quebec. In September 2017, I co-organized a three day conference at McGill University on the problematization of religious diversity; Charles Taylor was one of our keynote speakers. I had seen the polls and watched the debates.

Even though I knew it was coming, the announcement still felt like a sucker punch.

Five years ago, when the Parti Québécois introduced their Charter of Values, my husband and I discussed our future in Quebec.

He's Sikh and I'm Jewish. He's got a big beard and wears a turban. He speaks French with a Québécois accent that catches many people by surprise.

At the time, our family had recently expanded with the birth of our son and my husband was looking to transition careers. We didn't know if we would have a future in this province, where so many jobs fall under the public sector.

Then, in 2014, the Liberals won the election and we breathed a sigh of relief. A year later, we moved out of our apartment and bought a house on Montreal's South Shore.

Our children are no longer babies. They're active and inquisitive little people. They are aware that their cultural and religious background set them apart from their peers. But, they're still trying to figure out what this means for them.

People often ask us how we negotiate our different faiths. It's pretty simple: we embrace both Judaism and Sikhism, and celebrate major Christian and Hindu holidays too. April is always a busy month for our family with Passover, Vaisakhi, and Easter sometimes falling on the same weekend.

Jennifer Guyver says she and her husband raised their daughter, 7, and son, 5, to embrace both Judaism and Sikhism. They also celebrate major Christian and Hindu holidays. (Submitted by Jennifer Guyver)

We subscribe to the motto: you can appreciate without appropriating -- meaning we can participate in each other's faiths and cultures without having to change who we are as individuals.

For us, diversity is not an abstract concept; it's a fact of life.

My son is the only kid in school who wears a patka, a Sikh headwrap; my daughter's hair is noticeably long and she wears a kara, a Sikh bracelet, every day. On special occasions, she wears a Star of David.

We've invested a lot of energy teaching our children that diversity is a strength, not an obstacle. We tell them that embracing their own difference and treating others with respect is what it means to be Canadian.

Since the election, I've found it difficult to impart this lesson without feeling like I'm lying or hiding something from my kids.

At Hanukkah, my daughter said we were lucky to live in a place where everyone is free to practice their religion; my son has said he wants to be a police officer or maybe a teacher. I tried to smile and moved the conversation along to safer waters.

I worry that this bill will erode their trust in Quebec or damage their self-esteem.

I cringe at the thought of explaining to my kids – descendants of Jews who fled persecution in Eastern Europe and settled in Quebec more than 100 years ago – that their society believes they should not have the same opportunities in life as their peers because of what they wear or how they look.

Rationalizing their exclusion, while teaching them that Quebec has tried to learn from its past and is a society that stands for human rights, diversity, and equality, is an impossible task.

Yet, to explain this bill from the government's perspective, is even more unsettling.

I would have to say that wearing a Star of David, kara, or turban are simply not how things are done in Quebec.

These objects are not compatible with values like neutrality, equality or freedom.

These are values that only true Quebecers can embody; not people who look Sikh, Jewish, or Muslim.

Not people like you.

The choice facing Quebec parents, like myself, who value human rights, diversity, and equality is a difficult one. These are not the lessons we want to impart to our kids.

I sincerely hope I won't have to.

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Jennifer Guyver

PhD candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University

Jennifer Guyver is a PhD candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. Her fields of research are secularism in Quebec, religion and human rights, and the philosophy of Charles Taylor.


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