Let me see if I understand the argument put forward by those in support of Bill 21: the people of Quebec fought hard to wrench their government away from the clutches of the Catholic church, and so now any hint of religion that might creep back in through a religious symbol worn on the body of someone working for the government in a public-facing position needs to be prohibited. Is that it?
Or what will happen? Are we afraid that Catholics, who still represent 75% of Quebec households, will reassert control? Or is it that Muslims, who make up 3% of Quebec households, are going to step into the power vacuum left by Catholicism and stage a sneaky coup, through the Trojan horse of women in hijabs?
It was important during the Quiet Revolution that the church and state, who had been chummy bedmates ever since Jacques Cartier erected a 30-foot wooden cross in 1534, be separated. But that was 60 years ago. Christianity has largely fallen out of favour in Quebec and no one fears its return to state influence. Meanwhile, those groups whom Bill 21 chiefly targets – Sikhs, Muslims, Jews – make up a tiny percentage of the population and pose no existential threat to the secular state. Bill 21 confuses an old 20th century struggle to overthrow an oppressive and all-pervasive majority religion, with a modern reality of tiny religious minorities living within the 21st century cultural mosaic of a cosmopolitan Quebec. Bill 21 is stuck in the past, fighting a battle long ago won. (Sound familiar? Think of language politics…)
Faced with the incoherence of this argument, some defenders of Bill 21 claim its true purpose is to protect women’s rights. Then why does is also affect Sikh men in turbans, or Jewish men in kippahs? And how exactly is telling women what they can’t wear, or barring them from certain jobs, promoting women’s liberation? Perhaps it is naively hoped that Muslim husbands forcing hijabs on their wives will relent if their wives can’t be teachers or lawyers anymore, but I doubt such men would want their wives to work outside the home to begin with.
While state secularism is laudable, Bill 21’s supporters are misguided at best if they think that the secular Quebec state is so weak that a few elementary school teachers in hijabs could ever overturn it. The real institutional weakness that worries me is how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be brushed aside by the notwithstanding clause – a loophole in our rights not found in any other constitutional democracy. Bill 21 is not the solution to an old struggle, but the beginning of a new one.