Surjit Singh Flora: Quebec's ban on religious symbols is not freedom, it's oppression

Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer based in Brampton, Ontario.

It's absurd to pass any law that obviously violates that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. PM Justin Trudeau said Monday that he would not rule out federal intervention in a Quebec secularism law challenge but he’s disagreement with Bill 21. "I don't believe that someone should lose their job due to their religion in a free society. It's not a theoretical problem."

Quebec's National Assembly approved a bill that requires civil servants and members of the public who seek government services to cover their faces. This legislation is known as Bill 21. It affects Muslim women wearing religious face covers such as a Niqab, Burqa or other similar coverings.

Trudeau stated that he believes Fatemeh Anvari, a teacher, was fired because of her religious beliefs and that the issue is a concern to many Quebecers. He said that he was unwilling to offer any criticism beyond his personal opinion to avoid giving Legault the "excuse of a fight between Ottawa and Quebec."

To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces elicits extreme reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective and from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practise with great suspicion and mistrust. Today, the reality in Canada is that if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec's lawmakers.

I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practise has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mass, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practise that has faded from widespread use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.

I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to "strong reactions" from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.

Quebec nationalists should stop hiding behind Quebec bashing whenever they are criticized. Not all opinions agree with the government. This is embarrassing and petulant. Quebec's recent controversy over Bill 21 is basically Quebec saying, "Ok, yeah Canada, but still in Quebecois." Quebec is Quebec. We follow our own rules. "

Nearly everyone such as Jewish, Vietnamese, Sikhs with Turban, Muslims, Haitian, Chinese. It doesn't matter if Canadian multiculturalism conflicts with secularism.

The Canadian conflict between multiculturalism and Quebec's secularism highlights another Canadian paradox: one can celebrate one's heritage in both official languages but not in the other. Pierre Trudeau, by establishing Canada's society on the principles and practices of bilingualism/multiculturalism, effectively guaranteed permanent conflict due to their inherently antagonistic nature. It is enough to say that it allowed Quebec society to indulge in a hypocritical double standard. All Canadians are subject to official bilingualism, but only English Canada is subject to multiculturalism.

The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses, teachers, and doctors — and their professional standards of practise that require they provide medical service to all patients and Students who present themselves for care and study — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.

To many people who view these "foreign customs" through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face, or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind the orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practise of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their belief that it is.

Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa, it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.

PM Trudeau says he will not be involved in Quebec's fight over Bill 21. Because he does not want federal intervention being used by Quebec, It just shows another example of a weak-kneed Prime Minister. Why is he afraid of standing up to the misogynistic Premier in Quebec? He is afraid he will lose some votes. It all comes down to politicizing a simple decision. Trudeau must use the Federal powers he has to repeal Bill 21.

Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer based in Brampton, Ontario.

— AB

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(1) comment

Gurvinder Virdi

excellent article – Mr. Flora is right, Bill 21 is very problematic and unCanadian, even by Quebec standards!

Mr. Flora Keep up your critical but important work! Voices like yours are not only needed but required at a time like this.

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