The Quebec government is facing pushback from teachers and its own human-rights commission as it prepares to table legislation barring authority figures in the public service from wearing Muslim headscarves and other signs of religious observance.
The government of Premier François Legault is expected to introduce its so-called secularism bill as early as Thursday, capping more than a decade of churning debate over religious accommodation in Quebec. But if the government hoped its move would end the controversy, there are signs it is just heating up.
On Tuesday, one of the province’s largest teachers’ federations went to court to prevent the government from doing a headcount of teachers who wear religious symbols in the classroom. The group says such a census infringes on teachers’ fundamental rights.
“A law aimed at forbidding the wearing of religious symbols violates the Charter and violates our obligation to defend our members’ right to work,” said Sylvain Mallette, president of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), in an interview.
The Coalition Avenir Québec government, meanwhile, says it’s intent on pushing ahead with a law because it’s what Quebeckers elected it to do.
“What Quebeckers asked us to do was bring in a bill forbidding the wearing of religious signs among people in positions of authority as well as teachers, and that is what we will do,” said Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister in charge of the file, on Tuesday.
The CAQ campaigned before its election last fall on a pledge to curtail the display of religious symbols among public employees in positions of authority – police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison guards and teachers. Now media reports suggest the government is preparing to extend the ban to school principals as well as anyone who carries a gun, which would encompass wildlife officers, bodyguards and court constables.
By far the greatest impact, however, would be on the teaching profession. Many working schoolteachers in Quebec wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, which for years has been a lightning rod for controversy in the province and placed Muslim women at the centre of scrutiny.
Last weekend, a councillor in the Montreal borough of Anjou lamented her treatment for an emergency eye exam by a doctor wearing a hijab. Lynne Shand said on Facebook that the headscarf was part of the “Islamification of our country" and that Muslims are “trying to convert the planet … through massive immigration and multiple births.” Mayor Valérie Plante condemned the remarks.
Meanwhile, Quebec’s Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Isabelle Charest, last month called the hijab a symbol of oppression and “not something women should be wearing.”
Beyond the impact on individuals, critics are raising legal concerns about the government’s apparent readiness to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt potential court challenges to its new law. Such a clause would override the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights.
The head of the Quebec Human Rights Commission is warning the government that a law curtailing the rights of people to wear religious symbols risks violating basic freedoms – and that the notwithstanding clause should only be used in exceptional circumstances.
“Those who are targeted, who could be Jewish, Sikh, Muslim or other, will find themselves before a choice that is contrary to the rights to real equality: contravening their sincere religious belief or risking the consequences,” commission president Philippe-André Tessier told La Presse.
But the government has defended the use of the notwithstanding clause. On Tuesday, Mr. Legault depicted it as a legitimate tool to place collective rights above individual freedoms.
“I think it’s important,” he said. “When you’re talking about protecting values, protecting our language, protecting what we have that is different in Quebec, you have to be ready to use it.”
A ban on religious symbols such as the headscarf has already raised fears among Muslim schoolteachers that they will be forced to choose between their jobs and their religious convictions. Reports now suggest the government is preparing to grant current schoolteachers who wear religious symbols acquired rights so they would not lose their positions.
However, it’s not clear how Quebec would proceed unless it identifies those teachers already wearing religious symbols. And the injunction filed by the teachers’ federation in Quebec Superior Court Tuesday aims to declare such efforts unconstitutional; it also wants information culled from a headcount in 2018 destroyed.
“This would paralyze one of the central pieces of the bill,” Mr. Mallette said.
He added that his labour group has never once handled a grievance about a teacher accused of preaching her religious views to students or colleagues, calling the government’s legislation “an effort to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”