It is perfectly reasonable for citizens of honest intent and good faith to disagree over law and legislation. And so it is with Bill 21. What is not reasonable is for the debate to descend to the use of language that is not only inflammatory and inappropriate but wrong both as to definition and description.
It demeans the civility of our public discourse for Hampstead Mayor Bill Steinberg and Saint-Laurent MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos to call the proposed legislation “ethnic cleansing” — in the former’s case — and “a form of segregationist” in the latter’s. Whatever Bill 21 is, it is not aimed at specific ethnic, racial or even religious groups. And, contrary to the belief of so many that it is “undemocratic,” advocacy of laity in the public arena has been championed by some of the greatest democratic leaders of history.
Bill 21 is a statement of this government’s intent to remove religious symbolism from the public areas where the legal and intellectual character of this society is formed. One may agree or not, but one thing cannot be denied — this law affects all persons of all faiths. It cannot be ethnic cleansing because it is not aimed at any ethnic group. It is not segregationist because it is not aimed at any visible minority. It is a proposed law of general application and effects all equally. And it is not undemocratic because all democracies protect the freedom to practice one’s faith. Constant wearing of religious symbols in all circumstances are not demanded by any faith in the areas where Bill 21 proposes to ban them. They are merely traditions. Quite frankly, it is reasonable to argue that Bill 21 is nowhere near as exclusionary and violative of Quebec, Canadian and international laws as Quebec’s language laws have been.
We understand the concern of many Quebecers. Concerns that range from fear that this kind of action could lead us down a slippery slope to fears that it limits the opportunity for young people. Many can accept religious neutrality in our legislature, courts and security services but cannot accept that it is important to impose laity in our public schools.These concerns should be voiced and must be answered by our elected officials. But the expressions of oppositions must at least be done with intellectual rigour, a comprehension of words and some knowledge of law and history. Without these, the opponents’ words turn into a cacophony of senseless screeds.
Horrible words were used against Quebec’s linguistic minorities during the decades of our language wars. And as much as the Legault government has a responsibility to guard against this occurring again in this debate, past history does not give license for similar language from leaders who oppose this legislation.
It was certainly not our most pressing issue. But since Premier François Legault has made good on his election promise of introducing legislation on laity in Bill 21 it is important to maintain perspective. The CAQ proposal is a limited one. It is not Marois’ Charter affecting everything from health services to transport to all bureaucrats. It also includes a grandfather clause for existing employees wearing religious garbs and symbols. And opponents should remember that the CAQ introduced and passed a resolution that will see the removal of the crucifix from the Assembly.
Demands for laity in the public square — legislatures, courts, security authority and even the state bureaucracy — have been championed for hundreds of years by leaders such as President James Madison, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Nicholas Sarkozy. All faced debate and opposition. But we would recommend to those who oppose Bill 21 that they take a page from Laurier. Faced with horrible language flung at him sometimes accompanied by threats for his advocacy of laity, he never descended to the low level of narrow circumstance that has produced the words we have heard here lately. He responded with wit and restraint. In a speech in 1905, Laurier said, “It has been the pride of my political life that I have been condemned by Protestant Parsons and excommunicated by Roman Priests.” That’s the worst he ever said. We would recommend that nobility of spirit to those on both sides of the Bill 21 debate today.