There seems to be little doubt a new bill will be tabled and passed, but how will it look and what will be the backlash, is up to the CAQ alone.
When the new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government took power in 2018, led by Premier Francois Legault, it promised to bring forth a bill that would ban public servants in “positions of authority” from wearing any religious symbols.
Critics decried it as discriminatory but the government is moving forward and recently made an odd request to various school boards.
“Last Friday, officials from several school boards received a call from a deputy education minister asking them for the number of school staffers who wear such religious items. Representatives of the school boards said no such count exists. Several said they subsequently received legal advice that even asking such questions of employees would violate Quebec and Canadian laws protecting people from religious discrimination,” wrote Les Perreaux in The Globe and Mail.
In responding to the backlash, the government stated it was merely looking to see if such data existed, and it discovered that it doesn’t. The government also discovered that members of police services and the judiciary do not have the data either.
“If we had not asked the question when Simon Jolin-Barrette tabled the bill, I think reporters would have asked, ‘Do you have this information?’ Imagine if we had answered and we didn’t even ask if they had it. It would be irresponsible to not check if the information was available,” said Education Minister Jean-François Roberge.
The new premier appeared unbowed in his opening speech to the legislature last November. “The wearing of religious symbols will be banned for state employees in positions of authority including elementary and high school teachers. Ours is a reasonable position. We will thus be firm on this subject and we intend to move rapidly.”
While the provincial government plans on moving ahead, it recently decided not to extend the ban to private schools, even though about 60 per cent of funding comes from provincial coffers.
Also on the table is a proposal to grandfather existing workers who were hired before the new law would kick in.
“Off the top, firing someone (for refusing to remove a symbol) is not a prospect I relish. On the other hand, do we want to create a situation where people would have different rights depending on their hiring date? I will listen to the caucus and I will make the final call,” said Legault during the recent opening of the party’s caucus meeting.
Most Quebecers agree with the government’s stance, according to a CROP poll from late last year.
“Nearly three-quarters of those polled said they are either completely agree or rather agree with the CAQ’s plan to ban persons in authority, judges, police officers and crown prosecutors from wearing symbols such as the hijab and kippah,” according to Philip Authier, writing in the Montreal Gazette.
But Harvey Levine, B’nai Brith Canada Quebec regional director, said the proposed bill is an “assault on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Quebecers.”
“We are very concerned with the new Quebec government’s statements regarding a ban on religious symbols displayed by government officials and displayed in public institutions. We call on the CAQ to avoid the slippery slope of diminishing fundamental rights and work instead to secure religious liberties for all Quebecers.”
And the original authors of a report that first advanced the idea, slammed the government’s handling of the file.
“It comes as a little bit of a surprise. The function of teachers is very, very different. We’re not in the same ball game, so I disagree deeply with that,” said sociologist Gérard Bouchard, who along with philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a landmark 2008 report calling for religious symbols to be banned from police and the judiciary, as well as removing the crucifix from the National Assembly.
Taylor was even more effusive in his condemnation of Legault’s plan. “It’s either very ignorant or very intellectually dishonest. They’re using the report to do things the report condemned totally. It’s a very dishonest operation,” he said during a CBC News interview in late 2018.
There seems to be little doubt a new bill will be tabled and passed, but how will it look and what will be the backlash, is up to the CAQ alone. Legault even hinted that he would use the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, if need be.