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Bill 21

In June 2019, the Government of Québec passed the controversial Bill 21 (An Act respecting the laicity of the State), prohibiting public service workers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. This bill impacts several types of public service employees in positions of authority, such as teachers, judges, public prosecutors, members of the RCMP and other provincial or regional police officers. The bill—which was passed under the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, was passed with the view that it would work to align public policy with the government’s view of a secular state. Critics of the legislation have identified how immigrants and members of racialized and/or religious orthodox communities are disproportionally impacted by Bill 21, with people forced to choose between their cultural and religious identities and their professions. Bill 21 is seen by many to be a violation of the right to religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (and there have been additional claims that the law might also violate mobility rights and gender equality rights). Nevertheless, the Government of Quebec preemptively invoked the notwithstanding clause (s.33 of the Charter) to ensure that the Charter could not be used to overturn the new law.

A (Very) Brief History of Secularism in Quebec

Canada has historically had legislation and policies stemming from Canada’s founding in the Christian tradition, with public holidays, mores, and governance connected to its Christian past. The popularity of secularism as a principle of governance in Canada increased due to rising levels of immigration experienced in the late 1960s, alongside the rising concern about the prevalence of discrimination on the basis of religion. Secularism–best described as the separation of church and state–has had a particularly important place in Québec’s political history, particularly since the Quiet Revolution, when longstanding relationship between the Government of Quebec and the Catholic Church was disrupted by new commitments to a welfare state and a non-religious system of education.

Since the early 2000s, there have been a number of situations that have fostered controversy about the role of religion in public life in Quebec. One important case involved a decision in which a lower court ruled that a school board was justified in not allowing young men to wear the kirpan (a Sikh ceremonial knife) at school. When the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006, the Government of Quebec called together a commission to study how the relationship between secularism and immigrants of different religions within Quebec society.

Timeline of Bill 21

Critiques of Bill 21

There has been some support for Bill 21 and some citizens see Bill 21 as “a symbolic and constitutive act, and as fundamental to affirming and preserving the identity of the Québec people”. There are ongoing concerns among people in Quebec about the right of the provincial government to protect Quebecois language and identity, and the preservation of religious neutrality and the distinctive culture of the province.

But there has also been a lot of public outcry and concerns that not only is Bill 21 may violate the Charter on four counts. First, it violates s.2(a) (freedom of religion) given the restrictions it enacts on religious freedom. Second, as argued by one of the teachers’ unions in Quebec, Bill 21 violates section 2(d) (freedom of association), since it “imposes changes on duly signed collective agreements by nullifying clauses that prohibit school authorities from engaging in religious discrimination.” Third, Bill 21 may violate s.15 (equality rights) as it has disproportionate effects on women, who are more likely to be public-facing providers of public services. Insofar as these three elements of the Charter fall within the auspices of s.33 (the notwithstanding clause), Bill 21 may be constitutional.

However, another (fourth) challenge that has been raised is under s.28 (gender equality rights), which ensures that the rights guaranteed within the Charter are guaranteed equally to both men and women. Because the notwithstanding clause does not apply to s.28, the argument that Bill 21 violates s.28 may be particularly important as challenges to Bill 21 weave their way through the courts. (There are a number of legal challenges currently proceeding, largely falling under provincial law, rather than the Charter).

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Contributors: Grace Olivia Ditzend, Prianka Hoque, Hannah Lowenberg, Ana Radovanovic