After Bill 21, Quebec’s controversial religious symbols ban, was adopted late Sunday night, opposition parties accused the Coalition Avenir Québec government of slyly amending the bill to create what they call a “secularism police.”
The bill came down to a final vote around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, capping off two back-to-back marathon sessions after the government invoked closure.
Bill 21 bars public employees in positions of authority, like judges, crown prosecutors, police officers and teachers from wearing religious symbols, but includes a grandfather clause that ensures anyone currently employed does not lose his or her job (although he or she might be barred from future promotions or transfers.
Without prior notice, Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette made two last-minute amendments. One of those amendments allows a minister to “verify the application of the measures provided in the present law” or “designate in writing a person who will be in charge of this verification.”
Another amendment allows for unspecified “disciplinary measures” to be taken against employees who don’t adhere to the ban on religious symbols.
Opposition parties against the bill said they were completely taken by surprise.
“This potential to have this police, this type of police, wasn’t part of the debate at all,” said Liberal MNA Marc Tanguay.
Tanguay and colleague Hélène David accused the minister of deliberately hiding the amendments from the opposition.
“We asked again if he had any substantial amendments this very afternoon (Sunday afternoon) within the process of the baillon (closure), and he said: ‘You know what? You’ll have the amendment when I’m ready to give it to you,'” Tanguay said.
“Will there be police officers going after people to check if they have religious signs? We don’t know. It’s not clear. We didn’t even have time to analyze this modification clearly. They did it in a very undemocratic way,” said Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti.
Monday morning, Minister Jolin-Barrette objected to the term “police.”
“We give power to the government to make some verifications about the application of the bill. That’s really important because you know some organizations say, ‘We will not apply the bill.’ Se we need to have the power to verify if the law is enforced,” he said.
Jolin-Barrette assured that there will not be inspectors touring schools, court rooms or police stations with the objective of sanctioning employees.
“It’s not about the individual, it’s about the responsibility of the law,” he explained.
He said if an organization refuses to apply Bill 21, the government will have the power to seek a court injunction to force it to do so.
As for individual employees who wear religious signs when they are not supposed to, the minister says they will be subject to disciplinary measures as stipulated in their collective agreements or employment contracts.
Liberal MNA Greg Kelly said he’s concerned that this amendment to allow verification could be expanded on in the future.
“Who knows? Maybe there will be fines that will have to be brought in later on in the mandate when they see perhaps applying this bill is much more challenging than we thought. It’s more that it leaves a lot of room for interpretation and perhaps this will become something much larger,” he said.
Kelly said he’s worried the government could create a potential future secularism board, similar to the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), a public organization established in 1961, that’s also known as the Quebec language police.
“In my mind, what I hear and what I’ve read from the amendment, it sounds like it could turn into something like that,” he said.
David added that she’s concerned that enforcing the religious symbols ban will be left result in a lot of subjectivity because “the religious signs are so imprecise…their definition is really unclear.”
Jolin-Barrette tabled an amendment last Tuesday in the National Assembly that specifically seeks to define what a religious symbol is.