Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious symbols leads to fears of surveillance, monitoring

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Challenging newly passed secularism law
WATCH: Challenging Quebec's newly-passed secularism law – Jun 17, 2019

Days after the passing of Quebec’s Bill 21, civil liberties advocates say the bill is leaving religious minorities nervous and with many unanswered questions.

Bill 21, controversial legislation that makes it illegal for some public sector employees to work while wearing religious symbols, was passed by the Quebec legislature on Sunday night.

Amira Elghawaby of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told Global News that many religious minorities she’s heard from are uncertain of their safety and career prospects.

Part of the increased unease is a last-minute addition to the bill that “inspectors” will oversee the compliance of the new law. Elghawaby said Muslim women she’s heard from are unsure who those individuals are, and what exactly they will be doing.

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“There are a lot of questions about how this bill is actually going to be implemented,” Elghawaby said.

“Sort of last minute, we heard about the idea of surveillance in workplaces and that really sent quite a chill among people,” she explained.

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Enforcing Quebec’s secularism law

Quebec’s Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has told reporters that inspectors will be targeting organizations, not individual people.

“It’s really important because, you know, some organizations say we will not apply the bill,” he said, adding the inspectors will help “verify” the law is being implemented.

Because it was a last-minute amendment, only hours before the bill was adopted and hurriedly given royal assent, debate about how inspectors would operate was limited. Opposition Liberals and Quebec Solidaire promptly accused the government of creating a “secularism police.”

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WATCH: Teacher says she feels penalized by Bill 21

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Teacher says she feels penalized by Bill 21

However, on Monday, Jolin-Barrette objected to the word “police.” He said ministers will have the right to designate people to verify if the law is being enforced in organizations where it applies. If not, the government could seek a court injunction against that organization.

For individual employees who are subject to the new law, Jolin-Barrette explained that disciplinary measures will be taken in accordance with their collective agreements or employment contracts.

Elghawaby noted that while many Canadians have spoken out in criticism of the bill, it has also empowered others to discriminate more openly.

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On Monday, a Facebook group by the name of “Spotted: Contrevenants à la Loi 21,” asked Quebec residents to report those wearing the symbols to the group’s administrator. The administrator said they would then report the sightings to authorities, without offering details on the exact process.

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The page and its lone administrator were removed by Facebook as of Tuesday afternoon, the social media company confirmed to Global News.

It explained that the page violated its community standards of hate speech and misrepresentation.

“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence,” the statement explained.

Facebook has been cracking down on hateful content this year. In the first quarter of 2019, the website took down four million hate speech posts.

WATCH: UN condemns Quebec over bill 21

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UN condemns Quebec over bill 21

But Balpreet Singh, who works as the legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, noted issues arising from Bill 21 aren’t limited to Facebook or the online world.

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He said the bill essentially empowers regular citizens to monitor the actions of religious minorities, recounting the experiences of a Sikh woman who was allegedly told at a private sector job interview that she could not wear a turban on the job. Bill 21 does not apply to private sector employees.

“It looks like they are opening the door to minorities being monitored at work,” Singh noted, adding that wording in the bill is vague, which leaves the potential for more discrimination.

The bill lays out that “any object, including a garment, a symbol, a jewel, an adornment, an accessory or a headdress” and is worn “in connection with religious belief” or “reasonably considered to refer to religious affiliation.”

“I mean, a woman wearing a scarf, how are you going to determine whether that is fashion or culture or religion? Where do you draw the line?” Singh said.

“Is it going to be that anyone with brown skin that wears anything on their head, they’re automatically going to be assumed [to be] wearing a religious symbol? It’s not clear.”
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Singh said that he finds it difficult to believe Bill 21 passed in Canada, but also that it has not caused a “crisis” in the country.

“The fact that this isn’t a crisis is really shocking to us,” he said. “It looks as though it’s OK if discrimination happens against Muslims and Sikhs.”

WATCH: Bill 21 — Students and religious groups want their voices heard

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Bill 21: Students and religious groups want their voices heard

Reports of hate before the bill was passed

Concerns over rising hate were reported even before the bill was passed in Quebec.

In May, advocates said that Muslim women in the province were reporting increased incidents of hate to them.

Justice Femme, a Montreal-based group that offers legal support to women in the province, says it has received more reports of hate-fueled incidents since the March 28 tabling than ever before.

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Hanadi Saad, the president of the Justice Femme, told Global News in May that the organization has received 40 reports of such incidents since the tabling. She noted the number was “minimal” prior to Coalition Avenir Québec’s election, but has been steadily growing in the last few months.

The reports — sent in by email, phone, Facebook or the organization’s website — included 12 cases of cyberbullying, which resulted in some women removing their photos from social media.

There were two reports of women being refused early childhood education jobs on the basis of their hijabs, she said. In several other cases, women alleged they were harassed or intimidated at work.

WATCH: Human chain formed at demonstration against Bill 21

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Human chain against Bill 21

Bill faces legal fight

As advocates had promised, the new bill was hit with legal action less than 24 hours after it was passed.

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Civil rights groups and lawyers, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Ichrak Nourel Hak — a Universite de Montreal education student who wears a hijab — are listed as plaintiffs in the case.

They are seeking an immediate judicial stay on the sections of the law that prohibit public sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work. They are also seeking a stay on the section that requires people to give or receive state services with their faces uncovered.

“Put simply, last night, the Quebec government legalized religious discrimination,” NCCM director Mustafa Farooq said at a press conference Monday, while announcing the legal action.

— With files from Global News reporter Raquel Fletcher, The Canadian Press

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