On April 20, the Quebec Superior Court upheld the provisions of Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, or, “The Secularism Bill.” The judgment articulated that the bill was discriminatory. The Legault government’s pre-emptive application of the constitution’s “Notwithstanding Clause” compelled the court to uphold the discriminatory law. Exemptions were granted to sitting MNAs and English language school boards.
The CAQ government’s “heroic” efforts to prohibit the donning of religious symbols is as shortsighted as it is discriminatory. If the spirit of the bill is to guarantee secularism in a pluralistic society, the legislation is redundant at best. Religious and political neutrality are already sacrosanct within existing regulatory frameworks. To imagine that the secularism interwoven in the Quiet Revolution is becoming unraveled is fanciful thinking. Many experts contend that the real purpose of the bill is that of an enforcement mechanism to social integration. The bill, though, will prevent healthy social integration.
In the past decades, Quebec has promoted immigration from various parts of the world for political, economic and humanitarian reasons. This helped bolster Quebec’s reputation as a tolerant and open society. In this spirit, the presence of people practicing diverse religious and social customs should be expected. This is also a part of a global transference of human populations that will be even more prevalent as the century continues to unfold. Monolithic societies simply no longer exist. Throughout the twentieth century, governments which attempted to reinforce monolithic myths have fostered intolerance, discrimination and gross civil rights abuses. These things have marred the history of those societies. What then of Quebec?
The presence of religious symbols will be an ongoing but limited phenomenon in Quebec. This is simply evidence that Quebec is part of the globalized and increasingly urbanized world. Most urban societies have already long been “communities of communities”. The only way out of sharing the presence of those with different customs is to either try to escape the present or punish people who seem different. Bill 21 aims to do the latter. As we can see from the recent court judgment, the latter is also problematic from a civil rights perspective. In the bigger picture, it also shows that we are not as tolerant or “open” as we once thought.
If we, as a society, wish to integrate those with diverse customs, then benefits to engage in the larger community must be obtainable. Beyond this, it must be realized that only a few people in any given group will wish to forgo the opportunities that integration can offer. Thus, the total number of people wishing to wear ostentatious symbols will be minimal. Of 146,000 clients visiting Montreal’s health insurance board offices in 2008-2009, for example, only ten women wearing niqabs requested accommodation.
What then is a viable integration-building alternative? Social integration does not exist without economic integration. Economic integration does not exist without employment. This is significant because, according to Statistics Canada, unemployment among immigrants in the province is more than twice that of persons born here. Given the issue at hand, this rate is even more telling when it is understood that nearly half of Quebec’s recent immigrants are Moslem. The majority of this group can function well in the French language. This reality screams as to the discriminatory nature of the bill.
Integration is contingent upon employment. Needed are legislated hiring policies that are consistent with the goals of real integration – economic engagement. Given the opportunity to prosper, very few will choose to be disengaged from a society. When, however, any group is excluded from the mainstream, it has no alternative but to seek refuge in the past. People, no matter who they are, seek stability and some sense of solidarity.
Integration through employment is a means for people of diverse backgrounds to build commonality on the things we all seek – mobility, prosperity and the opportunity to contribute. Governments, including Quebec’s, need to embrace proactive measures that engage the diversity of our population despite all of our interesting differences. Religious symbol curtailment isn’t likely to accomplish this. Employment will.
Jeff Itcush is a High School teacher and former President of the Federation of Teachers of Jewish Schools.