Susan Schwartz, Montreal Gazette, May 7, 2019
At least 400 people gathered on the green space of Champ de Mars on Sunday and formed a human chain around Montreal’s courthouse in support of all those who would be affected by proposed legislation introduced by the Coalition Avenir Québec government that would prohibit the wearing of religious symbols for public servants in positions of authority, including teachers, judges, prosecutors and police officers.
They wore hijabs, turbans and kippahs. They wore baseball caps and sunhats and some wore bicycle helmets — a few adorned with feathers. Music played on a public address system and children played in the grass on the sunny afternoon as organizers of the event, a collective calling itself Coalition Inclusion Québec, and invited speakers spoke with reporters and then addressed the crowd.
“I’m very much opposed to the legislation,” said scholar and philosopher Charles Taylor, a co-author of Quebec’s 2008 report on reasonable accommodation. “It goes flat against rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Bill 21, as the legislation is known, would block court challenges by using the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Taylor asked: “Once you allow yourself to break the Charter, where will it stop?”
He said Islamophobia sweeping through the Western world is no doubt a contributing factor to the proposed legislation, but Bill 21 becoming law would just legitimize that. “Even proposing it is it is deeply irresponsible,” he said.
Montreal lawyer Gregory Bordan said Coalition Inclusion Québec believes the bill “to be highly discriminatory.
“It singles out religious groups to impose particular dress rules that are not imposed on others,” he said. “If you happen to be Jewish or Muslim or Sikh, you are prohibited from wearing a head covering.”
The scope of the ban could, of course, be expanded, suggested Bordan, a religious Jew who wears a kippah.
And the idea of imposing the notwithstanding clause to remove recourse to the courts by those targeted in the legislation is “very scary,” he said. It would mark the first time the clause were used to protect “such a direct attack on freedoms.”
Lawyer Coline Bellefleur, who wears a hijab, echoed Bourdan’s concern. A democratic society, she said, guarantees the protection of freedom for all its citizens, without discrimination on the basis of religion; the proposed law, she told those gathered at Champ de Mars, shows a “disregard for our freedoms.”
Bouchera Chelbi, a primary school teacher who wears a hijab and is a spokesperson for the Committee on the Right to Teach, said Sunday that, in the 18 years she has lived in Quebec, “I have always felt at home. I never felt my personal values to be at odds with my being a Quebecer. But there has been a deterioration in the climate in the past month: People from religious communities are being harassed and insulted daily.”
And should Bill 21 becomes law, she said, her prospects for career advancement will be much diminished. “Today, I can do many things. I can move elsewhere and change school boards. If the law passes, as of September I will no longer be able to advance myself. I will no longer have the same rights I have now.”
A grandfather clause would protect Chelbi in her current position, but she would lose that protection if she were to move to a different position. “I will no longer be equal to my male colleagues because they, unlike me, will be able to become school principals.”
As people gathered to form their human chain, they stood in groups by the colour-coded flag representing their affiliations: blue for teachers, yellow for jurists and lawyers, dressed in the flowing black robes they wear in the courtroom; green for politicians and unions; white for citizens at large.
The coalition said it chose Champ de Mars because Montreal city hall will be closed for reconstruction for several years and “as Quebecers, we also need to reconstruct our society, which seems to be increasingly breaking.”
And it chose to circle the Montreal courthouse “as a symbol of the importance of protecting our rights.”
Québec solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti, who attended with colleagues Manon Massé and Andrés Fontecilla, said it is important for people to demonstrate their opposition publicly and that as National Assembly committee hearings on Bill 21 begin this week, Québec solidaire “will do all we can to convince the government to retreat.”
“One of the things the government is saying is that they have the population behind them. We want to show that it is not true, that support is not unanimous — far from it … we think that even within the CAQ there is opposition but that people do dare not speak up,” Zanetti said.
Michel Seymour, philosopher and Université de Montréal professor, was blunt: “We are here to denounce Bill 21. It is not neutral. It discriminates against people with religious beliefs that have them dress a certain way,” he said. To ask people to remove their head coverings is “to ask for an accommodation that is not reasonable,” he said. “We have to recognizes others in their differences.” This respect for diversity is “what we want and what we want to leave to our children.”