Simon Jolin-Barrette, Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, described the hearings as "constructive" and praised groups for the mature tone of the debate. Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS
QUEBEC — Hearings into Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 wrapped up Thursday in much the same way that they started, with opinions split down the middle and no real sign of a consensus.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s most controversial piece of legislation — which it says will not be amended in any major way despite critics — is destined to wind up in the courts.
Bill 21 invokes a clause in the Constitution that blocks citizens’ ability to challenge the legislation in court. Jolin-Barrette said the government needed to include the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to ensure the will of the Québécois majority was respected.
“The legal fight will not end even with use of the notwithstanding clause,” said constitutional lawyer Perri Ravon, who on Thursday was acting for the group Coalition Inclusion Quebec, which presented a brief to the committee.
“We don’t know if we will win or not, but this is the irony of the thing. The government says it wants to avoid the judicial battle and turn the page, but nearly all the lawyers (working for groups opposed to the bill) are lining themselves up to challenge by using all kinds of arguments.”
The coalition, which is made up of people of all faiths and beliefs, was among the last to appear before the committee, which sat for a total of six days.
With one delegate wearing a hijab, another the kippah and a third a turban, it made a strong pitch for the government to consider the human side of denying youth in many minority communities a chance to work for the government unless they remove their religious symbols.
Bill 21 proposes to bar workers in positions of authority in the public sector from wearing symbols. The ban would affect judges, police officers, prison guards, courtroom clerks, elementary and high school teachers plus school principals and vice-principals.
Taran Singh, a representative of the Sikh community who speaks four language and is married to a Jewish woman, honed in on the ban for police officers, inviting the committee to look at the way things work in other police forces, such as the RCMP, which have successfully integrated minorities and their symbols.
“What is really mind boggling for young Sikhs is that they see a Sikh man (Harjit Singh Sajjan) who is the national minister of defence, but they cannot aspire to become a police officer on the streets of Montreal,” Singh said.
Bouchra Chelbi, the first and only veiled teacher to get a chance to speak to the committee, said she knows teachers with 30 years of experience who are “depressed and feeling ostracized,” over the bill.
She took a swipe at the government’s attempt to soften the impact of the bill by including a clause recognizing acquired rights to symbols for existing workers.
“It’s like saying you didn’t commit a crime, but we’re giving you a break and saying we won’t put you in prison,” Chelbi said before the committee chairman issued a warning about inflammatory language.
The group highlighted a recent Léger poll it commissioned along with the Association of Canadian Studies, which shows that popular support for Bill 21 falls by about 20 per cent if people are told it could be a violation of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms.
Earlier on Thursday, Montreal archbishop Christian Lepine issued a statement stating the government’s bill violates individual freedoms.
Later, Sol Zanetti, the Québec solidaire MNA on the committee, said he found the testimony moving and said if all Quebecers had witnessed the consultation process, many in favour of the bill would change their mind.
But the day was also marked by strong messages from two of the province’s more influential women’s groups. For days, the committee has heard that the Quebecers who will be most affected by the bill are women and especially Muslim women.
Gabrielle Bouchard, president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, told the committee Bill 21 is “fundamentally sexist” and an “institutional passport to shunt Muslim women into a professional and social ghetto,” and must be scrapped.
“I have the intention of breaking this glass ceiling you are in the process of creating and which will narrow my options and stigmatize me,” added federation delegate Idil Issa, a black Muslim woman.
Later, the Conseil du statut de la femme, the independent organization that advises the government, released the brief they would have presented had they been invited to appear.
The brief said while the council supports a limited ban on symbols for judges, police officers and prison guards), extending it to include teachers requires more study.
Emerging after the last witness was heard, Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, described the hearings as “constructive” and praised groups for the mature tone of the debate.
“There are many groups that said we are not going far enough and groups that said we are going too far,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters. “I think, yes, the bill has consensus support because it is moderate and we have demonstrated it.”
On the final day of legislative hearings into a bill that will dictate who can wear religious symbols in Quebec, a young black woman wearing a hijab had a blunt message for the provincial government.
"I have the intention of breaking this glass ceiling you are in the process of creating and which will narrow my options and stigmatize me," said Idil Issa.
"If it takes me five, 10, 15 or 20 years, I will break this glass ceiling, and any other glass ceiling that will prevent me from reaching my potential."
Issa testified at the National Assembly Thursday, alongside Gabrielle Bouchard, the president of a prominent Quebec women's rights organization, the Fédération des femmes du Québec.
Together they argued the proposed legislation — which will bar some civil servants, including public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work — violates basic feminist principles.
"This bill is fundamentally sexist," Bouchard said in her opening remarks. She said Muslim women will feel its effects most deeply.
"For us, the principle of 'our bodies, our choices' is a fundamental to keep in mind. This bill is a direct attack on women's choice and on our bodies."
Their joint presentation to lawmakers wrapped two weeks of hearings into Bill 21. Earlier in the proceedings, several women testified in support of the legislation, invoking similar feminist principles.
Indeed, the hearings have done much to highlight differences among Quebec feminists — not just over what the bill means for women's rights, but what it means to be a feminist in the first place.
For some feminists, Bill 21 represents a continuation of the battle for gender equality that marked the political struggles of the 1960s and 70s.
It was only in 1964 that Quebec passed a law giving married women the same legal rights as their husbands.
"Not [much] more than 50 years ago, women weren't recognized as individuals in law. And full equality still hasn't been achieved," said Christiane Pelchat, the former head of a women's rights advisory body, the Conseil du statut de la femme.
When accommodations are granted to religious minorities, Pelchat said in testimony last week, it usually comes at the expense of gender equality. She believes the bill will ensure gender rights don't take a back seat to religious freedom.
Other feminists, though, consider the bill in line with the current retrenchment of women's rights in many conservative regimes around the world.
Bouchard, for instance, compared Bill 21 with Alabama's decision earlier this week to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
The differences align with universalist and relativist approaches to feminism, said Julie Latour, who testified in support of the bill for a group of lawyers who want to see secularism enshrined in law.
"A women's fundamental right to equality is a universal aspiration," she said in a recent interview.
But she believes that project has been derailed somewhat by the rise of intersectional approaches to feminism:
The intersectional approach holds that race, sexuality, gender identity and socioeconomic background, among other factors, need to be considered in order to account for why women may experience oppression differently.
It is at the core the position taken by the Fédération des femmes du Québec, which maintains the effects of the secularism law won't be felt evenly.
"This bill particularly targets Muslim women," said Bouchard. "They live the consequences of this conversation."
Issa provided her own definition of intersectional feminism when she opened her remarks by declaring: "I am a woman; I am black, and I am a Muslim. Because of who I am, I am subject to many barriers."
The hostility between the two camps became evident during the hearings. The universalists had a difficult time believing a woman would voluntarily wear a religious symbol, such as a hijab.
"To put 'hijab' and 'feminist' in the same sentence is paradoxical," said Leila Bensalem, a high school teacher who testified on behalf of a pro-Bill 21 group called Pour les droits des femmes (For the rights of women).
"It's as if the [Quebec Women's Federation] is fighting for oppression in the name of freedom."
At another point in the hearings, Liberal MNA Paule Robitaille confronted an ardent feminist supporter of the bill.
"There are lots of young women and older women who wear the hijab by choice," Robitaille said. "Isn't it a little doctrinaire, even reactionary, to tell women how to dress? Isn't it a little anti-feminist, because it marginalizes them?"
The Coalition Avenir Québec government, for its part, has said repeatedly the bill won't affect one minority or gender more than another.
But on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette refused a request made by the Liberals, Québec Solidaire and the City of Montreal to study whether the law he's proposing will have a differential impact on women.
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