Hearings into Quebecs secularism legislation open with chorus of support from feminists – Thompson Citizen

Hearings into Quebec\s secularism legislation open with chorus of support from feminists - Thompson Citizen
West Island students hold Bill 21 protest
After spending all day hearing from defenders of his secularism bill, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was confronted Tuesday evening with a challenge from a wispy-haired, 87-year-old philosopher. 

"We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary," Charles Taylor told Jolin-Barrette at legislative hearing in Quebec City.

It is so important to us, because this is our future, said Beaconsfield High School student and co-organizer Christina Koikaran. If this ban does get put into place, its us that are going to be going into the public sector and having to face these consequences.

If passed, the bill would bar Quebec civil servants in positions of authority — including public teachers, police officers and Crown prosecutors — from wearing garments like the kippa or hijab while at work.

Just over a decade ago, Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard co-authored a landmark government study into how best to accommodate religious minorities. 

In response to Taylor's challenge, Jolin-Barrette argued that large parts of his bill were inspired by the Bouchard-Taylor report. But Taylor replied they never recommended stripping teachers of the right to wear religious symbols. 

“Women who wear the hijab will be the first victims (of Bill 21) and it is therefore deplorable that we won’t be heard on this,” said Samaa Elibyari, from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. “The hearings aren’t impartial. They merely weaken the democratic basis of this law.”

"No right is without a limit," Taylor said. He added, though, that trampling on fundamental rights — such as religious freedom — required a good reason, something the government had yet to provide.

That point was echoed in later testimony by Quebec's human rights commission and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, one of only two religious groups invited to speak at the hearings.

The group of seven religious leaders said they’d be holding their own “hearings” on Bill 21 next Monday in Montreal. But for now they say they’re holding out hope the government will have a change of heart and allow them to testify at the National Assembly.

"We don't think the government has demonstrated that there is a serious threat to secularism in Quebec," said Dan-Michaël Abécassis of CIJA. 

Representatives of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions got together to denounce Bill 21. Rabbi Avi Finegold, Imam Musabbir Alam and Reverend Paula Kline at a press conference at the St-James United Church in Montreal on Tuesday May 7, 2019. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Taylor has since backed away from one of the most discussed recommendations of the 2008 report, which suggested that police and judges not be allowed to display signs of their faith.

One of the bill’s goals is to ensure the neutrality of the state and, in particular, to reinforce democratic norms like the equality between men and women. Sara Abou-Bakr says the legislation takes a thinly veiled shot at women who wear religious head coverings.

He changed his mind, he said, when he saw the consequences of proposing limits on religious expression. 

Representatives of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions got together to denounce Bill 21. Reverend Paula Kline and Sara Abou-Bakr chat after a press conference at the St-James United Church in Montreal on Tuesday May 7, 2019. Dave Sidaway / jpg

"Campaigning on this issue stirs up hate," Taylor said. "You can't exaggerate the alienation this causes for minorities."

Representatives from seven religious groups said Tuesday they wrote the Coalition Avenir Québec government in hopes of participating in its consultations on Bill 21. They said that, one by one, they were largely dismissed or ignored.

Taylor testified alongside Jocelyn Maclure, a Université Laval philosopher who also worked on the Bouchard-Taylor report. Maclure issued his own challenge to the government: produce studies that show religious symbols by themselves lead to conversion.

“We have this tendency to explain what the veil means to Muslim women without actually asking Muslim women why they wear it,” said Abou-Bakr, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

"I'm still waiting to see those studies because they don't exist," Maclure said.  

“Christians don’t have that obligation. You wouldn’t know a Christian, probably, walking down the street. … (Bill 21) imposes a Western Christian interpretation of religion.”

The two philosophers were the first critics of the bill to appear before the committee on the first of six days of hearings into the draft legislation.

“I was brought up in a Catholic family in Nova Scotia. My two sisters never miss Sunday mass but neither of them wear the crucifix,” said Kline, a spokesperson for the United Church of Canada.

All the groups who testified to that point backed the bill, even suggesting it go further. They want to see it applied to private school teachers and daycare workers.

The government is shutting out religious groups from the debate on a law that would transform the role of religion in Quebec, according to leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Sikh and Muslim communities.

Some of these groups didn't hesitate to use fiery language to describe the danger of not passing strict limits on religious symbols in the civil service.

The CAQ began its public hearings Tuesday on the legislation that would forbid public school teachers, police officers, court employees and other civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken secularism advocate, equated Muslim women who refuse to remove their hijab at work with extremists. 

"Women who wear the hijab … are engaging in emotional blackmail when they say they won't take it off. I consider them to be fundamentalists," said Benhabib, who represent a group called Collectif citoyen pour l'égalité et la laïcité.

(Premier François Legault disagreed with Benhabib's characterization, saying: "Let's be careful with the labels.")

Another group speaking for secular North Africans tabled a document that said women who wear the hijab "aren't really Muslim." 

The Liberal secularism critic, Hélène David, asked the group what they thought about women who wear the hijab by choice.

The Coalition Avenir Québec has a strong majority, and has indicated it wants to pass by the bill by the end of June. 

But Legault has also said he wants to build broader support among the opposition parties, if possible. So far, only the Parti Québéois has expressed any openness.

The price of their support, the PQ interim leader said Tuesday, is extending the bill to private schools and daycares, as well as clarifying how it will be enforced.

Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, told reporters before the hearings began that the government wouldn't negotiate on a number of points. Chief among them, he said, was the bill's invocation of the notwithstanding clause.

That would protect the eventual law from court challenges based on claims it violates religious freedoms.

Along with the measures targeting teachers, the use of the nothwithstanding clause is arguably the bill's most controversial feature, roundly denounced by legal experts and civil rights advocates. 

Jolin-Barrette opened the hearings by addressing the widespread criticism the draft legislation has attracted. He said the 2018 election gave the government a clear mandate to move forward with its proposals.

"The government of Quebec is convinced it has found the right balance between individual rights and collective rights," he said.

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