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‘Narrow-minded’: Bill 21 explained | The Charlatan, Carleton’s independent newspaper

Amatur Rahman Salam-Alada,* a second-year journalism student at Carleton University, once dreamed of moving to Québec after graduating. Tired of Ottawa, she wanted to work for CBC Montréal or a French-language magazine.

However, she said she realized working in Québec was not viable as a young Muslim woman because of the racism she would face. The problem, she said, extends far beyond civil service.

Salam-Alada’s struggle is common for Muslim women in Québec.

Second-year Carleton University journalism student Amatur Rahman Salam-Alada is seen in a portrait on Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022 in Ottawa, Ont. [Photo by Spencer Colby/The Charlatan]

Québec’s Act respecting the secularity of the Statecommonly referred to as Bill 21, was enacted on June 16, 2019.

The act states people must keep their face uncovered to receive certain government services, affecting those who wear niqab, among other religious body coverings. It also prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols while on duty. This includes police officers, legal authorities such as judges, government leaders and educators.

Critics of Bill 21 argue that it unfairly targets people unable to hide their religious symbols. For example, a small crucifix or cross necklace is easily hidden beneath clothing, unlike a niqab or a hijab.

According to Salam-Alada, the government’s limited understanding of religious symbols is cause for concern. Many symbols are valuable and represent key beliefs in religion, like crosses in Christianity. What often appears to be jewelry and clothing can carry important meaning for those who are religious.

Bill 21 has been controversial among Canadians. Some believe the act promotes religious bias, while others believe it frees them from religious oppression. The legislative intent is simple: To establish the Québec government as the ultimate authority within the province.

A brief history lesson

Bill 21 is not Québec’s first attempt to ban religious symbols in the public sphere. An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodiesbetter known as Bill 62, was enacted in 2017. Bill 62 also banned individuals who wear face coverings from receiving government services, such as passport photos.

Philippe Couillard, former Quebec premier and Liberal Party leader, enacted Bill 62. The legislation was suspended in 2018, but what Bill 62 failed to accomplish would see success under the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).

The reintroduction of a secularist bill in Québec made up a chunk of CAQ’s platform. Delivering on the party’s promise, the bill was tabled in April 2019 and became law two months later. Introduced by the CAQ, Bill 21 encountered resistance from civil rights activists, but the CAQ managed to bypass criticisms of charter violations.

The notwithstanding clause, used sparingly by governments historically, became the CAQ’s saving grace in its mission to bring Bill 21 to Québec. Founded in Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the clause can be used to override individual charter rights for the greater good.

According to subsection 33.3 of the charter, any use of the notwithstanding clause must be reviewed every five years from its enactment. Given that the bill was enacted in 2019, a review is due by June 2023.

In recent years, there has been an increasing invocation of the notwithstanding clause throughout Canada.

“While the Charter already places reasonable limitations on rights and freedoms, suspending these rights via Section 33 has serious implications, opening them up to negotiation,” Hannah Dick, professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University, wrote in an emailed statement.

But the controversy surrounding the act was present long before Bill 62 itself was enacted. There is a long-lasting debate on religious neutrality in Québec over whether people in positions of power should be allowed to express religious affiliations when on duty.

The opposition

Pierre Thibault, a civil law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the inclusion of public educators in Bill 21 is problematic for the act’s support.

In the two and a half years since Bill 21’s enactment, its enforcement has brought controversy and debate, largely due to the inclusion of teachers as civil servants subject to the law.

“Because the professors and teachers are included in [Bill 21]it makes it more difficult to justify,” Thibault said.

There have been multiple attempts to challenge the act, some of which have received support outside of Québec.

Nathan Phillips Square is seen in 2013 in Toronto, Ont. [Photo provided by City of Toronto]

In a December 2021 Toronto city council meetingcouncil members showed unanimous support for contributing $100,000 to a joint legal challenge against Bill 21. The challenge was brought to Quebec by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Many controversies surrounding the act have also provoked media and civilian outrage across Canada.

In December 2021, one controversy reignited conversations surrounding the act when a western Québec elementary school removed Fatemeh Anvari, a new Grade 3 teacher, from her classroom because she wore a hijab.

Following outrage from students’ parents, Wayne Dale, interim chair for the Western Québec School Board, said the board made a mistake hiring Anvari and were unaware she taught with the hijab on. Prior to the bill becoming law, the school board put out a statement saying it was opposed to Bill 21.

Anvari’s religion and subsequent suspension from the position sparked a new conversation among young people about how their search for employment may be impacted.

Those already working as civil servants when the bill became law are exempt from its implications, so long as they “exercise the same function within the same organization,” according to the act. Thus, if a civil servant moves positions within the organization, they would have to stop wearing any religious symbols they were previously allowed to display.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has been outspoken against Bill 21 and officially recognizes it as marginalization of religious minorities and racialized groups.

According to Dick, Bill 21 “singles out non-medical face coverings, directly targeting women who wear the niqab, denying them important public services as well as employment opportunities.”

According to the CCLA, immigrants, people of color and those who wear religious face coverings are often already denied opportunities because of things like religion or skin colour. With Bill 21 in place, jobs in areas such as teaching, law and politics remain inaccessible.

Luqman Ahmed, an imam for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the Baitul Naseer Mosque in Ottawa, is deeply saddened by this bill and its impact.

“I was reading that the majority of Muslims in university [who] were asked about this law… said that after they’re done their studies, if they could find a job outside of Québec, they would choose to do that.”

Salam-Alada said within her Gatineau, Que. community, there is already discrimination against the religious symbols this act targets.

“This one kid who goes to my congregation,” she said. “She goes to a school in Gatineau and she has to take off her scarf during gym class to participate because her gym teacher said it would get in the way of her participation de ella.”

While Salam-Alada’s story about her fellow congregation member happened before the implementation of Bill 21, it’s an example of the type of behavior that this act now permits within certain workplaces.

Second-year Carleton University journalism student Amatur Rahman Salam-Alada is seen in a portrait on Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022 in Ottawa, Ont. [Photo by Spencer Colby/The Charlatan]

religion in society

Salam-Alada’s stories illuminate the truth that Bill 21 affects more than just public servants and authority figures: It’s affecting younger members of the Muslim community too.

This is concerning, according to Salam-Alada, given the increasing number of Muslim immigrants in Canada.

When Salam-Alada heard about the Québec school teacher’s suspension, she said it impacted her as a Muslim woman. She saw it as a devaluation of the hijab and something that could limit her job prospects for her.

“[The hijab is] perceived as something meaningful in Islam, but to others, it’s essentially just an extra piece of clothing,” she said. “It just feels kind of narrow-minded to fire someone just because they’re wearing that.”

Ahmed sees this as well. The bill, he said, creates divisions in society. Moreover, he is concerned for the safety of Muslim public servants.

“If a public servant is wearing a religious symbol, then yes, right now, maybe people are not physically attacking them,” she says. “But it is possible that if this kind of rhetoric continues, it could lead there.”

June 2021 attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario is one example of anti-Muslim hate in the form of a physical attack. According to Statistics CanadaMuslim populations were one of the most frequent targets of hate crimes against a religious group in 2020, accounting for 16 per cent of all crimes.

Things could still change for those affected by Bill 21, especially with an imminent election for the National Assembly of Québec.

According to Thibault, if any party other than the CAQ wins, the law may not withstand its review in 2023.

Assistant Dean and Secretary at the Faculty of Law within the Civil Law Section of uOttawa, Pierre Thibault is seen in a portrait in 2016 [Photo provided by uOttawa]

On the left, Québec’s Liberal party leader Dominique Anglade has said she will not renew the act and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for Québec Solidaire, has said he wants to act sooner by repealing part of the act if elected.

The use of the notwithstanding clause to pass the bill initially and its mandatory five year review bring about a larger question, according to Dick.

“How robust are our charter rights if they can be suspended?”

*Amatur Rahman Salam-Alada has contributed to the Charlatan.


Featured image by Spencer Colby. With files from Christianna Alexiou.

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