Why doesn't the Quebec government seem bothered by mounting tension over its religious symbols bill?

The Quebec government says there is “no tension and no division” over its bill. Mounting evidence of increased intolerance suggest otherwise.

The CAQ insists everything is fine as Quebec debates Bill 21, but evidence suggests otherwise

Quebec Premier and CAQ leader Francois Legault speaks during the party's general council meeting in Montreal, Sunday, May 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Over the weekend, police in Quebec City opened an investigation into a possible hate crime outside a suburban mosque, the same mosque where, in 2017, a white nationalist killed six people.

The incident, which allegedly involved a man shouting racist comments and throwing a punch, received the necessary condemnation from Quebec's premier, François Legault.

Along with the concern, there came a strenuous denial the incident was in any way linked with his government's bill that seeks to ban religious symbols in wide sections of the public service.

Legault said there was "absolutely no connection" between the altercation and Bill 21, the so-called secularism bill. "You will always have, unfortunately, some racist people."

On the surface, there is nothing unusual or untoward about that. So little is known about the incident, or the suspect, that any claim about underlying motives is pure speculation at this point.

But the denials by Legault and his immigration minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, went beyond cautioning against drawing spurious connections.

The mosque in Quebec City was the site of a mass shooting in 2017. (Radio-Canada)

"The bill in no way legitimizes this kind of behaviour," Jolin-Barrette, who sponsored the bill, said Sunday, adding there is "no tension and no division" in Quebec society. 

His comments recall the popular internet meme that features a dog, in a room on fire, saying "This is fine."

Evidence mounting

The fire around the Coalition Avenir Québec government, in this case, is the more than 40 cases of hate directed at Muslim women around Montreal since the bill was tabled.

These cases, documented by women's advocacy group Justice Femme, include verbal harassment as well as attempts to rip hijabs from the heads of Muslim women.

Over the last week and a half, CBC News has also talked to two Muslim women who were spat upon, one who was yelled at and another who had her niqab grabbed (police are investigating the last incident as a hate crime).

That this spate of incidents has coincided with the debate around Bill 21 could be anecdotal, or a statistical blip. Correlation, as any decent social scientist will tell you, doesn't equal causation.

'The bill in no way legitimizes this kind of behaviour,' Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Sunday, after police opened an investigation into an altercation outside a Quebec City mosque. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But consider that public health experts and practitioners in Montreal warned the government that such effects of its bill could be anticipated.

A research group on diversity in Quebec, funded in part by the provincial government, surveyed nearly 20 years worth of research on integration in the province.

Taken together, these studies suggest that recent public debates in Quebec about identity issues — such as discussions around reasonable accommodation or the failed Charter of Values — have been accompanied by increases in hate incidents directed at minorities.

The research note includes the ominous line, "we cannot omit mentioning that the law could increase the probability that ... violent events occur."

The researcher group, known by its French acronym SHERPA, had hoped to testify at the legislative hearings into Bill 21. They never received an invitation.

Of those who did receive invitations to testify, several issued similar warnings to the government.

Jolin-Barrette was in the room when Samira Laouni, an inter-culturalism advocate, told the hearings the bill will "legitimize discrimination."

He was there when Gérard Bouchard, co-author of a landmark government report on minority relations, said the bill will will feed intolerance, and he was there when Haroun Bouazzi, head of the only Muslim group to appear at the hearings, said the government is sending the message it's OK to "exclude minorities."

If he was listening, their comments don't seem to have registered.

Bill 21 will "legitimize discimination," Samira Laouni, an inter-culturalism advocate, told a legislative hearing earlier this month. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Is this fine?

The CAQ government's reaction to the altercation outside the Quebec City mosque caused dismay in many circles. But it can be understood as reflecting a mindset that is shared well beyond the party.

Legault doesn't believe that systemic racism exists in Quebec. He's said so on many occasions, including on the second anniversary of the mosque attack, when he rejected turning the annual event into a day of action against Islamophobia.

He is not alone in this belief. The previous Liberal government, for instance, scaled back a promised inquiry into systemic racism when it caused unrest within party ranks.

When that's your starting point, then what happened outside the mosque on Saturday can be treated simply as a one-off thing. The altercation in Quebec City can't be linked to any wider current of intolerance that gets activated by polarizing debates about identity, because you don't believe that current exists in the first place.

Continuing to hold that position, though, requires ignoring what Muslim Quebecers are saying about what it's currently like to live in the province.

"It's like we opened a door to tolerating insults, tolerating provocation. It's deplorable. People aren't afraid of saying, 'Go back home,'" one Quebec City Muslim, Mourad Oualli, told Radio-Canada this weekend.

Quebecers like Oualli are trying to tell the government something: There is a fire raging, and this is not fine.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?