CIJA urges compromise on Quebec secularism bill – Canadian Jewish News

CIJA urges \compromise\ on Quebec secularism bill - Canadian Jewish News
Bill 21 feeds intolerance, Gérard Bouchard tells hearings
It wasn't until late on the second day of hearings into Quebec's secularism bill that lawmakers heard from someone who wears one of the religious symbols targeted by the legislation.

But by the time Samira Laouni wrapped up her testimony, the committee was confronted with a detailed description of Islamophobia in Quebec and arguments why the proposed law would only make it worse. 

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has said the legislation is inspired by a report by Taylor and historian Gerard Bouchard, who in 2008 recommended public sector employees wielding coercive authority — such as judges, police officers and prison guards — be prevented from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Wearing a purple hijab, or Muslim head covering, in the National Assembly's "red room," Laouni said that by seeking to bar some civil servants — including public school teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs, skullcaps or turbans, the government was sending a message.  

He defended the government plan to oblige some public sector employees to remove their religious symbols while on the job, describing the governments proposed legislation today as moderate and pragmatic.

"The message being received by Muslims … is that they're not welcome in Quebec," Laouni said, speaking for Communication pour l'ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, a non-profit group that promotes inter-cultural dialogue.

She expressed concerns that by singling out some religious groups more than others — such as Muslim women — the bill was contributing to intolerance. The bill, she said, will "legitimize discimination."

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette appeared to be skeptical when Laouni described "radical secularists" who were whipping up hatred against Muslims.

"Maybe our elected officials should read our Facebook pages to see what we're subjected to everyday," she said later in the hearing.

Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette in Quebec City, on March 28, 2019. (Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Laouni's group was accompanied by several members of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, the Quebec City mosque where six people were killed in 2017 by a gunman radicalized by the white nationalist movement. 

She said representatives of the cultural centre had also asked to speak at the commission but were denied a spot. Several other religious groups have criticized the government for leaving them out of the hearings.

The only Muslim group that did receive an invitation, the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la laïcité au Québec, addressed the hearings earlier Wednesday. 

Speaking for the group, Haroun Bouazzi said it was members of racialized communities who would be harmed most by the religious symbols ban in the public service. 

"This bill is actually institutionalizing discrimination," said Bouazzi, a well-known anti-racism activist in Montreal, following his appearance at the hearing. 

The head of Quebec's human rights commission, Philippe-André Tessier, who testified late yesterday evening, made similar remarks. The bill will force people to either change their religious practices or risk losing their job, said Tessier.

"That, in other words, is discrimination," he said. "There aren't 1,000 different ways to say that." 

The Coalition Avenir Québec government acknowledges that its bill would limit an individual right, namely the right to religious freedom.

But the government argues that doing so is necessary in order to finally resolve Quebec's long debate over how to accommodate minorities, and preserve the province's distinct collective identity.

The bill, moreover, invokes the notwithstanding clause, which the government hopes will spare it from being challenged in court on grounds it violates the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights.

In many of his questions to the committee's witnesses, Jolin-Barrette has sought their opinion on whether the government is justified in limiting a right and invoking the notwithstanding clause.

The famed sociologist Gerard Bouchard, who co-authored a landmark study in 2008 on religious accommodations, agreed that sometimes it's OK to violate a fundamental right if it's for a greater good.

"Where is the greater good that would render this limitation legitimate? I don't see it," Bouchard said during his highly anticipated testimony Wednesday afternoon. 

There is no evidence, he said, that religious symbols traumatize students or lead to radicalization. 

"If just one of those elements were proven, I would support your bill, because then there would be higher principle," he said.

Bouchard is adamantly opposed to the bill in its current form, saying it makes the province look intolerant in the eyes of the world.

The bill's critics on the committee — the Liberals and Québec Solidaire — have repeatedly asked its backers to provide evidence of the threat to Quebec society that the legislation would address. 

On Wednesday, the committee heard from two educators who argued that when teachers wear religious symbols, it harms gender equality.

They were asked by Québec Solidaire MNA Sol Zanetti whether they had any data to show a link between Islamic radicalization and the hijab. 

"Do you need studies to show that the McDonald's hamburger man encourages people to eat more hamburgers?" replied Nadia El-Mabrouk, a Université de Montreal computer science professor and well-known advocate for secularism.

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“History is filled with examples where a majority abused its powers at the expense of its minority.”

Gérard Bouchard, co-author of the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodations, speaks at a legislature committee studying Bill 21 in Quebec City on Wednesday. Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS

QUEBEC — The co-author of the 2008 report on reasonable accommodations says Quebecs Bill 21 doesn’t make the province look like a “decent society” and will only feed an intolerance toward minorities, which has been festering for years.

And Gérard Bouchard said that before the majority decides to override the rights of its minority, it needs to have a good reason, some kind of “higher motivation” other than just wanting to get the debate over with fast — and the Coalition Avenir Québec government has yet to prove its case.

It has not even produced a scientific study proving a teacher wearing a hijab, for example, could indoctrinate, intimidate or traumatize a student into following a particular path, Bouchard said.

“History is filled with examples where a majority abused its powers at the expense of its minority,” Bouchard told Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, who asked him why it is not legitimate for elected MNAs to decide the nature of the relationship between the state and religion.

“That’s why when a state ventures into this terrain, someone at a distance has to be watching over and here it is the courts,” Bouchard responded. “It is their role. Today I am asking, where is the higher motivation which would make this bill legitimate?”

The polite exchange, between one of the province’s most well-known and respected sociologists and a minister who argues the courts should butt out of the issue, came on the second day of hearings into the bill tabled in March.

A day earlier, Charles Taylor, the other half of the Bouchard-Taylor team that drafted a report on reasonable accommodations, made his appearance, telling the committee he has changed his mind about its recommendation to bar a short list of authority figures — judges, police officers and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols.

Bouchard still supports their original recommendations, saying he believes those restrictions would have stood up to a court challenge.

But Bill 21 goes too far and the very fact the CAQ government has decided to include the notwithstanding clause overriding fundamental rights is proof Bill 21 is not only radical, but it will stir radicalism, he said.

Bouchard also had harsh words for the man in the premier’s chair the year their report was published: Liberal premier Jean Charest.

“Had it applied then our main recommendations, we would not be where we are today,” Bouchard told reporters on his way out of the committee room after his presentation.

“Animosity, aggressivity, polarization, positions harden … and by the end nobody can do anything about it,” Bouchard said. “Today I am unable to convince anybody or get someone to change their opinion because we have been bogged down on this too long.”

Bouchard, brother of former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, said “he’s no prophet,” but he thinks Bill 21 is more likely to fuel controversy than calm it as the government believes.

And the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause will be seen as especially offensive internationally.

“We look like people who are not very sensitive to fundamental rights,” he said. “We don’t look like what I would call a decent society.”

As the intensity of the hearings increased — it veered into MNAs being asked about their personal beliefs Wednesday — Jolin-Barrette got conflicting messages on the effects of the proposed ban on religious symbols for teachers.

While some experts said symbols mean nothing, two teachers — Nadia El-Mabrouk, who is originally from Tunisia and now is a professor at the Université de Montreal, and Leila Bensalem, who is from Algeria and teaches English in a Montreal high school — suggested the ban be expanded to cover all workers in a school, from the janitor right up to the principal.

“When we are a teacher in a school, there is a freedom of expression which we do not have,” El-Mabrouk told the committee.

The duo said all symbols mean something, in the same way a person wearing a sandwich board plastered with McDonald’s advertising sends a message to stir up sales.

As the day closed, Samira Laouni, president of the Organisme de communication pour l’ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, made a passionate appeal for inclusion and dialogue.

She invited MNAs to have a look at the Facebook pages of minority persons to see the kind of “hatred and rejection” some live with.

“Being Islamaphobic has become legitimate,” she said. “Being xenophobic has become banal, a daily event, normal.”

Meanwhile, a new Angus Reid survey shows the debates of the last month have not modified Quebecers’ opinions on the bill.

Sixty-four per cent of Quebecers support the government’s plan to ban symbols, but 48 per cent also say the bill will have a negative impact on relations between the majority and cultural communities.