CAQ government ignoring Montreals diversity with secularism bill, Plante tells lawmakers –

CAQ government ignoring Montreal\s diversity with secularism bill, Plante tells lawmakers -
Montreal mayor says secularism bill targets minorities and violates freedoms
The mayor of Quebec's biggest city accused the provincial government on Tuesday of rushing ahead with a controversial proposal to restrict religious symbols without considering the harm it will cause Montreal's diverse population. 

At a legislative hearing in Quebec City, Valérie Plante said the government had failed to take into account how Bill 21 — the so-called secularism bill — will impact minority communities in general, and immigrant women in particular.

The motion came as Plante was in Quebec City to explain the citys opposition to Bill 21, Premier François Legaults proposal to bar some government employees, including police officers, from wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippah, Sikh turbans and Christian cross.

"I am totally aware that Montrealers are not unanimous in their opinions about this bill," Plante said in her opening remarks to the committee.

To me, (Rotrands) motion comes at a very bad time. There is a legal process happening in Quebec right now. I dont think its relevant or contributing in a positive way to have this kind of motion. I dont find it very useful. I think its not the right time.

"But I consider it my duty, as mayor of Montreal, to speak for those who will be affected by this law."

Ive always spoken my mind on this front. And Im more talking about the motion and this is what Im saying right now: not the right time, not the right moment and its just adding fuel on the fire that is already burning pretty intensively.

If passed, Bill 21 will bar civil servants — including public teachers, government lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while at work.

Last month, city council unanimously rejected that proposed law in a bipartisan motion that said the bill “does not reflect the daily reality of Montreal society, which is rich and unique in terms of culture and diversity.”

The Coalition Avenir Québec government has defended the bill from accusations it will encourage discrimination, saying it applies equally to all religions, as well as to both men and women.

But on Tuesday, Rosannie Filato, Plantes executive committee member responsible for public security, said Projet Montréal would reject Rotrands motion, which she described as a form of provocation, pure and simple.

Plante rejected that argument. She said unemployment rates are already much higher for immigrant women than other sectors of the population.

He pointed to a young Muslim woman and a young Sikh boy who have said they want to be Montreal police officers but would not be allowed to do so under the Montreal police departments current rules.

By limiting where Muslim women who wear the hijab can work, Plante said, the government was only adding a further obstacle to their integration into the workforce.

She urged the government to take more time to study whether the legislation will impact men and women differently.

In 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, Montreals police force included 345 officers from visible minorities, representing 7.5 per cent of uniformed personnel.

"This law will not have the same impact on men as it will for women. I think it's important to think critically about that," she said in response to a question from Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor.

The Montreal mayor's appearance at the Bill 21 hearings came amid growing differences between her administration and the provincial government.

Its centre-right approach to issues such as immigration and public transit are often at adds with the more left-leaning priorities at Montreal city hall.

The motion, by Snowdon councillor Marvin Rotrand, is “just adding fuel on the fire that is already burning pretty intensively,” Mayor Valérie Plante said.

The two governments have clashed, for instance, on the CAQ's attempts to lower immigration levels. And Montreal's pleas for money to fund a new Metro line have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. 

City council has rejected an independent councillors bid to allow officers who wear religious symbols to serve on Montreals police force.

Plante, though, often struck a collaborative tone during her remarks Tuesday. She reaffirmed her intention to obey the law, and said she supported the government's goal of defending secularism.

But her critiques of the bill were also wide-ranging. She said the government lacked evidence demonstrating the merits of its proposal; she questioned whether the new dress rules would be applicable; and she warned the government it was heightening social tensions by pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause.

The CAQ government hopes that by invoking the clause, the law will be spared court challenges on grounds it violates fundamental rights, such as religious freedom.

Plante said that move is contributing to concerns about the legitimacy of what the government is trying to do.

Currently, no Montreal police officers wear Muslim hijabs, Sikh turbans or Jewish kippahs. John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

"You have to let people feel that the mechanisms of democracy are available to them," she said. "We're sensing a feeling of powerlessness."

Plante spoke to reporters before leaving city council to address the National Assembly committee studying Bill 21.

Questions from the two opposition parties who intend to vote against the bill — the Liberals and Québec Solidaire — focused the polarized debate around the draft legislation.

Plante expressed fears the eventual law will encourage harassment of religious minorities and contribute to their isolation.

Visible minorities represent 33 per cent of the population on Montreal Island, according to the 2016 census.

"In Montreal, we have a reality that can be different from other cities in Quebec," she said, following a question from a Liberal MNA.

"In Montreal, cultures mix … on a daily basis. I want to make sure that social cohesion isn't called into question. But at the moment, there is a lot of tension. I'm not going to hide it from you."

The hearings resume Wednesday, and will wrap up Thursday. Premier François Legault wants the bill passed by mid-June.

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