Quebec’s secularism bill met with opposition from Gérard Bouchard, coalition of politicians

CAQ’s secularism bill elicits strong opposition
The proposed religious neutrality bill is creating a firestorm of emotions, with one municipal mayor in Montreal equating the bill to "ethnic cleansing.” As Global's Tim Sargeant explains, some student groups and teachers have started organizing protests.

Quebec’s proposed legislation banning religious symbols for some public servants drew more strong criticism Friday, with one of the province’s leading intellectuals rebuking the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s approach.

Gérard Bouchard, co-author of a 2008 report cited as inspiration for the government’s Bill 21, wrote in Friday’s La Presse that it would be a serious mistake to prohibit teachers from wearing religious symbols. He questioned whether Premier François Legault had “yielded to demagogy” in banning symbols for those in the education sector.

READ MORE: Quebec Liberals accuse CAQ of dismissing concerns over secularism bill

Bouchard wrote that including teachers in that category, as Bill 21 does, is an unacceptable suppression of a fundamental right, and he called the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause to block court challenges “a perilous path.”

The 2008 report written by Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor following provincewide public hearings proposed banning religious symbols for public servants who wield coercive authority, such as police officers, judges and prison guards.

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“It is fundamentally a question of credibility” Bouchard wrote Friday. “It is important that these agents project an image of impartiality to those arrested or before the courts, to inspire maximum confidence.” The goal, he said is to reduce “the possibility of a suspicion of bias or any ‘reasonable’ doubt.'”

READ MORE: Will Montreal defy Quebec’s secularism bill?

Bouchard said Legault “seriously erred (or yielded to demagogy?)” by extending the ban to teachers on the vague grounds that they are “in a position of authority.” His statement comes the same week Taylor denounced Bill 21 as clearly discriminatory and told The Canadian Press he will be fighting the legislation any way he can.

Also Friday, a group of west-end Montreal municipal, provincial and federal politicians called for Quebecers opposed to Bill 21 to join them in an April 14 protest, with one suburban mayor describing Bill 21 as “ethnic cleansing.”

Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg said that a secular society does not impose one religion over another, as he believes Bill 21 is attempting to do. The end result will be certain groups — Jews, Muslims and Sikhs among them — won’t come to Quebec or will leave the province to allow their children to have a full array of job prospects.

“This is an attempt to remove those who practice minority religions, leaving only non-believers and Christians in Quebec,” Steinberg told a news conference.

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“This is ethnic cleansing — not with a gun, but with a law. It’s racist. It is despicable.”

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Other politicians present, including Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, distanced themselves from the comment. The goal of the group, Housefather said, is to see the proposed law, withdrawn, changed or defeated altogether.

“No child should be denied the right to believe they can be anything, and this is a law that denies that,” he said, adding that the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause was uncalled for.

“Citizens have a right to know if a law violates the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights,” Housefather said. “To use the notwithstanding clause before the law is tested in the courts makes it even more unjust.”

WATCH: Westmount students, teachers hold protest over Bill 21

Westmount High students, teachers protest CAQ religious symbols bill
Westmount High students, teachers protest CAQ religious symbols bill

Speaking in Repentigny, Que., Legault told reporters his government is open to some compromise without specifying what. He noted the government included a grandfather clause for those already working — as long as they don’t switch jobs. It also agreed to take down the crucifix from the legislature.

“But when I hear people say that even policemen and policewomen should be allowed to wear religious symbols, I don’t think we’ll find a compromise with these people,” Legault said.

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Legault also told reporters he is comfortable with Bill 21’s inclusion of teachers, arguing that allowing religious symbols in the classroom could send the wrong message. “For the best interest of kids here in Quebec, we don’t believe teachers should wear religious symbols,” he said.

READ MORE: Quebec government refuses to say what penalties might apply to those who disobey proposed secularism law

The bill’s sponsor, Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister of immigration, diversity and inclusion, called Steinberg’s comments unacceptable.

“People can have a disagreement about Bill 21. They have a right to their point of view,” he said. “But in public debate in our society, we have to be calm, we have to be able to discuss, and we don’t have to insult each other.”