Absurdity and cruelty come together in one new Quebec law

This has been a long time coming. For over a decade, Quebec's political class has been particularly adept at exploiting Quebecers' understandable fear of assimilation for electoral gain.

By invoking the notwithstanding clause, the CAQ has tacitly admitted this is bad legislation

This has been a long time coming. For over a decade, Quebec's political class has been particularly adept at exploiting Quebecers' understandable fear of assimilation for electoral gain. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Last Wednesday, a few days before the Coalition Avenir Québec government forced its so-called "laicity" bill into law, Sol Zanetti wandered around the halls of Quebec's National Assembly with a cluster of symbols printed on seven stapled pages. They included a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab, a Jewish kippa and a kirpan, the ceremonial dagger carried by many observant Sikh men.

It also included a Jesus fish and a pentagram, along with a circle containing three interlocking ovals—the ancient Indo-European symbol favoured by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones for the band's seminal fourth album. Zanetti, an elected member from the left-leaning Québec solidaire party, called the ad-hoc pamphlet a quiz, the point of which was to ask a question: what, exactly, is a religious symbol?

Zanetti's cheekiness underscored how absurdity and cruelty often live in close quarters. As of last Sunday, in a bid to ensure Quebec vaunted secularity, the government has banned the wearing of religious symbols by certain government workers. In theory, this means there will be nary an offending kippa, hijab or cross decorating the bodies of those civil servants in "positions of authority," as immigration minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has put it.

Zanetti wandered around the National Assembly with an ad-hoc pamphlet, raising the question of what, exactly, constitutes a religious symbol. (Daniel Coulombe/Radio-Canada)

In practice, because the government has declared that teachers are in said positions of authority, the new law will almost exclusively target religious minorities, particularly Muslim women, who teach in Quebec's primary and secondary schools. The law, which is retroactive to last March, essentially forces these people to choose between religious identity and gainful employment, with a cadre of government secularism enforcers ensuring no religious garment escapes persecution.

It is also a long time coming. For over a decade, Quebec's political class has been particularly adept at exploiting Quebecers' understandable fear of assimilation for electoral gain. In 2007, a clutch of isolated incidents, including the advent of pork-free baked beans at a Montreal-area sugar shack, translated into the "reasonable accommodations" crisis; populist politicians spun a narrative suggesting religious minorities were unduly imposing their will on Quebec's distinct society.

Five years later, a minority Parti Québécois government attempted to legitimize and legislate this fear with the so-called "Quebec values charter," which would have banned all "conspicuous" religious accoutrements from the bodies of anyone drawing a government paycheque. (This meant no hijabs, kippas, turbans or large crosses, though smaller crosses were fine.)

The law failed to pass, as the PQ didn't have the votes to do so. This led to an attempt, by the subsequent Liberal government, to produce its own version. It bloomed its own plethora of absurdities, including an argument over what tint of sunglasses constituted a face covering and whether Muslim women had to uncover their faces while riding Montreal's Metro. (Stéphanie Vallée, the justice minister at the time, said they did. Then she said they didn't.)

The law came into effect in the fall of 2017, though a Quebec court suspended the face-covering part of it in less than a year, ruling that "the fundamental rights of women who cover their faces for religious reasons will be seriously infringed" should it remain on the books.

To its credit, the CAQ has tacitly admitted that its own stab at state-sponsored secularism is equally bad legislation. Though Legault has defended the law as a model of compromise with a finger-kissing blend of cruelty and absurdity— "There are people who are a little racist and don't want to see religious symbols anywhere in public," he earnestly told Radio-Canada recently — the premier has invoked the charter's notwithstanding clause, thereby shielding it from inevitable court challenges.

Investigating breaches

It hasn't shielded it from its own absurdities, however. Quebec is the storied home of the language police, who during more absurd fits of pique have attacked the English words like "pasta" and the Italian "bottiglia" for being insufficiently French. Similarly, by way of enforcement, Legault's law allows the ministry to appoint "a person" tasked with investigating alleged infringements — and determining what, exactly, is a religious symbol.

Translation: thanks to iPhones and YouTube, there is a very good chance the world will soon be privy to a woman in Quebec filming herself being berated by a government official for covering her own head with cloth or wearing a cross around her neck.

Other absurdities abound. The law only applies to worn objects, meaning that while that cross necklace is verboten, a tattooed version of it is fine. Ditto long beards, longer dresses, shaved heads and, one presumes, "Honk If You Love Jesus" t-shirts, assuming they are being worn ironically.

And it applies to non-visible religious objects as well, meaning Sikh men could theoretically be punished for the kirpan under their vest even if they've doffed their turbans for the sake of their job. Hairshirts, worn by some practicing Catholics, will suddenly become uncomfortable and illegal in certain government workplaces. (Government workers, Jolin-Barrette said, won't be subject to a "morning strip search," a promise that surely won't make it to the government's recruitment website.)

Laughably, the law was constructed by the ministry of "immigration, diversity and inclusion," which now sounds less like an aspirational catchphrase than an Orwellian irony along the lines of "Freedom is slavery" and "Ignorance is strength."

If there is anything good to be gleaned from this law, it perhaps lies in the opposition to it. This isn't like Quebec's language battles of lore, which neatly divided the province's French and English camps. Rather, dissent against the secularism law is decidedly multilingual and spans Quebec's fabled sovereignist/federalist divide.

Three overwhelmingly Francophone union organizations representing teachers have conspicuously opposed it, and two Montreal school boards have vowed not to enforce it on its staff. The province's women's federation came out against it, as did the association representing some 27,000 Quebec lawyers.

Paule Robitaille, an elected member with the staunchly federalist Liberal Party of Quebec, is against it. So is ardent Quebec sovereignist Sol Zanetti—who never did manage to get Legault to take his quiz.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.


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