Quebec students currently studying to work as public servants, including police officers, will have to take off their religious symbols in order to find a job in the province.
This is according to Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who tabled Bill 21 on Thursday which would prohibit public sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
The proposed legislation affects elementary and high school teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in what the government considers to be positions of authority.
“Wearing religious symbols is not allowed,” he insisted, when asked what the specific criteria behind the ban would be.
“Any wearing of religious symbols is not allowed. Size doesn’t matter, how visible it is doesn’t matter. It is not allowed.”
Included in the bill, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” is a grandfather clause, permitting current employees to continue wearing their religious symbols.
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“I think Quebec’s society is mature. We have a responsibility on how the debate will going on and I hope we can talk about that peacefully and calmly,” he said.
“We are taking a major step in laicity that will benefit the whole society. I invite people to make their comments in a respectful way.”
Ayesha Khan, a teacher at Marymount Academy in Montreal, wears a hijab. While she will be not be forced to remove her religious garb, she said she doesn’t want to have to choose.
“I was born and raised here,” she said.
“I’m a proud Montrealer but if I’m forced to choose between my identity and my livelihood, I have to choose my identity.”
The bill has created much controversy over the last few months, and since its tabling, many organizations have already come out opposing the bill — referring to it as discriminatory and divisive.
The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) said it is deeply disappointed by Bill 21, arguing it is opposed to the banning of government employees, including public school teachers and principals, from wearing religious symbols.
“Bill 21 is a divisive and an unnecessary piece of legislation that can only lead to societal discrimination. Once again, this government is claiming there is a problem that clearly does not exist,” said QESBA president Dan Lamoureux.
“Quebec’s public schools have a proud record of inclusion, of celebrating the different ways to be Quebecers and Canadians. Our teachers’ unions and our school boards have always found ways to strike a positive balance between religious differences and common values.”
The organization, which represents 100,000 students in 340 elementary, high schools, and adult and vocational centres across the province, insisted it would much rather the government work to “address the real issues, such as student success and increased services in the classroom.”
QESBA insists the fact that the prohibition would not apply to current employees does not make it more acceptable.
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“The use of both the Canadian and Quebec notwithstanding clauses in Bill 21 is a clear indication that even the Government of Quebec recognizes that the proposed measures are an infringement on individual rights,” it stated.
“Inclusion, inquiry and fairness are basic principles that guide the teaching we do in all nine English school boards across Quebec. QESBA sees nothing in Bill 21 that strengthens these principles.”
The organization says it will consult with its community members and plans to attend the parliamentary hearings.
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The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) maintains the bill has widespread support from across the province.
“It’s a choice of the Province of Quebec. The government, today, is fulfilling our electoral promise,” Jolin-Barrette said.
On Wednesday, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) adopted a motion declaring its refusal to implement legislation restricting the wearing of religious symbols.
“We believe in the secularity of the state while supporting an individual’s right to freedom of religion,” said EMSB chair Angela Mancini in a statement.
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Jolin-Barrette said he is open to hearing what the different departments and organizations have to say during the hearings.
“They must adopt the law. That’s how it works and I am convinced all the actors will respect the law,” he said.
“No one in Quebec wants to be in violation of the law. I think that would be a bad message to send to the population of Quebec.”
The government said it plans to also propose a motion calling for the withdrawal of the crucifix from the provincial legislature.
“What we want is to show all Quebecers that we are also ready to make compromises on the grandfather clause, on the crucifix, in order to get as much support as possible because my goal is really to unite Quebecers,” Quebec Premier François Legault insisted.
To date, the government said it does not yet know what potential sanctions could be imposed for anyone who does not comply with the law.