As It Happens

Why Quebec nationalist Jean Dorion opposes controversial secularism bill

Former Bloc Québécois MP Jean Dorion says that despite appearances, Quebec's controversial Bill 21, which aims to bar many public servants from wearing religious symbols, is clearly targeted against Muslims and members of other religious minorities.

'This makes me very sad. I totally disagree with [the Bloc Québécois] on that point,' says former BQ MP

Former Bloc Québécois MP Jean Dorion says the Coalition Avenir Québec government's Bill 21 plays 'petty prejudices' against Quebec immigrants. (Radio-Canada)

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Politicians are gathering in Quebec City as public hearings into the controversial Bill 21 are set to begin Tuesday. 

If passed, the bill would ban some public servants, including police officers and public school teachers, from wearing religious symbols.

While the Coalition Avenir Québec government has a majority, public opinion of the bill remains divided, with each side voicing its perspective at two separate demonstrations this past weekend in Montreal.

Among those who took part is former Bloc Québécois MP Jean Dorion, who spoke out against the proposed law. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Mr. Dorion, I know you were at the demonstration that was against Bill 21 on the weekend. What message did you want to send with your presence there?

I think this project is against the national interests of Quebec. It's also a project, which is unfair for members of minorities. So this is a very sensitive issue as far as I'm concerned.

Who do you think this bill is targeted at?

Religious minorities. That's clear. The government has the support of mainly people to whom those different practices are unfamiliar. And they're afraid of that.

This is the main support they get from, but also they get a very active support from people who are anti-religious, who are a minority but they are very active.

But this bill, Bill 21, is aimed at religious symbols. It's not just not just hijabs or niqabs. It's also Jewish kippas. It's Christian crosses. It's all symbols of religion. So why do you say you think that it's aimed principally at Muslims?

They must give a kind of universal appearance, but to me it's clear that the main target is Muslim women wearing veils. I think it's very clear to me … I don't see how we cannot see that.

More than 100 people attended a demonstration in Montreal last 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)

Would you call it a racist law?

No. I don't use the term racist because I may look old-fashioned, but to me racism is the belief that some people with physical features, different from the majority or different from from us, are inferior.

I don't think this is what the bill is saying. The bill is saying that people who don't act like us in the field of religion are dangerous, and they exploit that feeling, which is rather frequent.

You are obviously a sovereigntist. You promote the idea of Quebec's language and culture in the province of Quebec. The Bloc Québécois think this law is reasonable and legitimate. The Parti Québécois says that its state doesn't go far enough. Why are you not in step with other nationalists?

A good number of nationalists have left those parties in recent years. The result is that those who stayed somehow accentuated the character taken by those parties, especially [the] Parti Québécois. The Parti Québécois is really something totally different from what it was many years ago.

You were also formerly part of the Bloc Québécois, which also says this is a reasonable and legitimate law for the Quebec nation. So you are out of step with the Bloc Québécois as well?

This makes me very sad. I totally disagree with them on that point.

We're now going into six days of hearings before the National Assembly to discuss this bill in Quebec. What do you think of those hearings? They seem to be quite limited.

They are tricky. They invited people who support their views. Basically, there are a few exceptions, but generally they tried to invite people who support their views. So we might expect those hearings to be a kind of propaganda session for government in favour of that project. After that I think they will try to adopt it very quickly this springtime. Mr. Legault wants the matter to be solved before summer.

When Bill 21 was introduced, Quebec 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. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

But on the long-term, I think the discussion in Quebec will go on, and probably this thing will be a thing of the past in, I don't know, maybe 10 years.

They are passing this law because they have very broad support in the Quebec public. So what do you make of that? What could you possibly say to Quebecers that could change their minds?

Well, you know, it's not only the numbers that count. You must also look at who. Generally the people of the law, the lawyers, the jurists, are against. In the universities, people are against. Surprisingly, in the trade unions ... there is a broad hostility to that. So those people finally have some influence on public opinion in long-term.

And also, what is very clear is there is an important gap between the younger population and the older population. In those geographical areas, and also age areas, where people are probably more likely to be dealing with people who have religious signs, those people who are likely to to be in touch with people with religious signs are the least favourable to that law.

So the more exposure you have to others, the more tolerant you are.


Q&A edited for length and clarity. Interview with Jean Dorion. Produced by Morgan Passi.