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Why secularism is quickly becoming a ballot-box issue in Quebec

Why secularism is quickly becoming a ballot-box issue in Quebec
WATCH ABOVE: Quebec's recent adoption of a controversial secularism law has religious minorities in the province reeling. As Amanda Jelowicki reports, it's becoming a key issue in the federal election campaign.

Amrit Kaur is slowly settling into her new life in Surrey, B.C., after she moved last month from her hometown of Montreal — not because she wanted to but because she says she felt she had to.

Under Quebec’s new secularism law, Kaur, who is Sikh, would have had to remove her turban to teach, something she wasn’t willing to do.

READ MORE: New teacher leaves Quebec for British Columbia over Bill 21

“It was a really tough decision. It was tough on our family, and my turban and my faith is something I cannot compromise for anyone,” Kaur said. “The fact is I was kicked out and I think that in combination with leaving my family, it hurts.”

With the election campaign in full swing, secularism is quickly becoming a ballot-box issue in Quebec. Premier François Legault has warned federal leaders not to meddle with Bill 21, his secularism law, which bars some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs, turbans and kippahs.

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Other than the leader of the Bloc Québécois, most federal leaders have criticized the law. But so far, none have promised to seek intervener status in any potential lawsuit.

READ MORE: Scheer and Trudeau agree — Feds should not intervene in Quebec’s religious symbols ban

Minority groups, however, are pleading for help as they say a climate of fear is brewing in Quebec.

“People are scared. Quebec just became that province where the government has just legalized state discrimination,” said Sarah Abou-Bakr of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Issues of identity politics aren’t new in Quebec.

Many point to the small town of Hérouxville, Que., as the kick-starter of the debate over the reasonable accommodation of immigrants. With a population of about 1,000, the town garnered international controversy back in 2007. Despite having almost no immigrants, Hérouxville passed a charter for newcomers that warned against stoning, burning and dousing women with acid. The document also underlined the importance of Christmas trees.

Despite being labelled Islamaphobic, the Hérouxville charter struck a chord with Quebecers that remains today. It fuelled years of uncomfortable debates in Quebec over how minorities should coexist with the French majority in Quebec.

WATCH: Quebec teacher Amrit Kaur on why Bill 21 should be struck down

Quebec teacher on why Bill 21 should be struck down
Quebec teacher on why Bill 21 should be struck down

Longtime Hérouxville resident Ginette Meunier calls the town charter an important precursor to Bill 21. She says that while she welcomes immigrants, she believes it’s important for people to integrate into Quebec life.

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“We take off our crosses in public. They must remove their turbans,” Meunier said.

READ MORE: At least 3 teachers remove religious symbols at work under Quebec’s secularism law

Around town, some locals call Bill 21 the most important election issue, and they agree with Legault’s sentiment that federal leaders shouldn’t intervene.

“I see what’s happening in Montreal,” 73-year-old Guy Lafontaine said. “Our French culture is suffering there, and it needs protection.”

READ MORE: A third of Canadians in favour of banning officials from wearing religious symbols — poll

Bill 21 has proven popular in Quebec, enjoying around 60 per cent support across the province. It’s especially popular in more rural regions. But many minority groups have spoken out about the law in Montreal, where they say a rise in racially motivated crimes is happening. Earlier this year, advocates said Muslim women in the province were facing more incidents of hate.

Some groups are imploring the federal leaders to help.

“I think that federal leaders should definitely have their word because this is a very dangerous law,” Abou-Bakr said. “It makes us feel like second-class citizens, and this is unacceptable and it should not just be not spoken about because it’s a provincial issue — no, it’s a human rights issue.”

COMMENTARY: Our federal politicians lack principles when it comes to Bill 21

But political analysts say getting involved could prove costly for federal leaders, especially in the all-important electoral regions of Quebec.

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“My sense right now is that it is probably more of a danger to challenge the law electorally because that might give rise to more of a shift in votes in Quebec than being passive might be in the rest of Canada,” said Daniel Weinstock, a professor of law at McGill University.

As she starts her new life in B.C., Kaur says what’s happening in Quebec saddens her. She wants the federal government to step in.

“Quebec, after all, is in Canada. It is governed federally as well as provincially. If the provincial governments are not protecting minorities then the federal government needs to do so because at the end of the day, we are people who are voting,” she said.