Listen Up! Quebec’s Bill 21 is a great threat to Canadian identity

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Canada Eh!

It is that time of year again when most of us celebrate how fortunate we are to be Canadians. In spite of our warts, in spite of the naysayers, we still have the privilege of living in one of the greatest countries in the world. I for one, am far more concerned with keeping it that way, than I am in continually apologizing for sins of past generations. I regret our mistakes, I celebrate our achievements, but I really believe our focus should be on our future as Canadians. From that perspective, we do, in my opinion, have something to be concerned about.

We have become complacent. We have embraced populism and sometimes I think we have forgotten what it means to be Canadian; what it means, as small as we are, to be a leader in the world and not a follower.

It absolutely blows my mind that one of the greatest threats to our identity, our reputation and our humanity, is taking place right under our noses and we are all but ignoring it. Canada was founded on diversity and diversity remains its strength. And yet, there is an attempt, in one part of Canada, to at least partially wipe it out. And no one is paying attention.

I am talking about legislation in the Province of Quebec, Bill 21 to be precise, that is now enacted into law. It is styled as a secularism law that would ban public workers from wearing religious symbols. But that is not what it really is. It smacks much more to me, of an ethnic cleansing of Quebec’s public service.

Public workers in Quebec include teachers, nurses, in some cases, Doctors, police officers, paramedics, firefighters, hydro workers, social workers and anyone else who receives a government paycheque. It means that people who are of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and in some circumstances, Jewish faiths, have to choose between their religious requirements and their ability to work and provide for their families. It means that none of these people can work in public sector jobs in Quebec. That is not Canadian. Surely, that is not who we are.

To be fair, when becoming a Canadian citizen, there are limits. The rule of law for instance, trumps everything and there are instances where women have to reveal their identity and no one should tell another person what they can or cannot eat. But what one wears, is simply a symbol of their faith, to which they are entitled by Canadian law. it should not be denied.

The reality is, that Canada is a multi-cultural country. It is also a country whose intrinsic underlying values include, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to work. The result, is that some people will dress differently, eat differently and worship differently.  Some will wear a hijab, a chador or rarely, a full burqa. Some will wear a turban or a yarmulke. But all are Canadian and entitled to freedom of religion and the right to work. Anything else smacks of white supremacy.

So why is there so little fuss being made about all of this?  Is it possible that because there is an election in the air, that no-one wants to take on Quebec? Where is the leader of our country, that great champion of human rights?  Yes, Prime Minister Trudeau has paid lip service to his disagreement with the Quebec legislation. But he has not stamped his foot as he has on other issues, much less significant to our national fabric.

This is a serious human rights issue, staring him in the face, in his own home Province. He has paid much less attention to it than he has to similar issues in other countries. He has shown no leadership here on a matter of fundamental importance to all Canadians. He and no one else, IS the Prime Minister.  Sometimes, Mr. Trudeau, it is more important to do what is right, than to do what is politically safe. This is one of those occasions.

I went to Church today, and on the eve of Canada Day, found a verse in an ancient hymn that caught my eye.

“For the Healing of the nations, God, we pray with one accord;
For a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action, help us rise and pledge our word.”

To me, that is Canada as it should be. Happy Canada Day from a proud but worried Canadian.

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12 Comments

  1. Louise Choquette on

    Please try to inform yourself better before writing such editorials. Only public service employees in position of coercion (police, judges and teachers) need to remove religious signs during work hours. NOT doctors, social workers and hydro workers!!! Where did you get that? Everyone is getting grand-fathered in… And, where were you in the pre-1965 era when religion was controlling society in Québec? Is that what you want again? I don’t….

    • Rob Millman on

      Thank you, Louise, for clarifying the actual intent of Bill 21. It certainly does not seem unnecessarily invasive under this interpretation. Of course, there may be a small minority who refuse to put part of their identity aside during working hours: Unfortunately, they will be restricted in the pursuit of government employment; but the situation is not nearly as cataclysmic as Mr. Mackenzie avers. I wonder what Orthodox Jews do about their sidecurls during working hours, or whether they would be hired at all.

  2. I think many women see the burqua, and to a less extent head coverings as a sign of oppression. These women have no real choice but to wear concealing clothing, if they want to remain in their communities. When I was young, women could not wear pants, you had to wear a hat or head covering in church, etc, and these were just outer signs of society telling us what we could or could not do. Maybe this is part of the reason why there is not more opposition to this bill.

    • Lynda Lewin on

      I agree with your view on this subject Hugh. Thank you for a well written article. Sometimes we, as Canadians, are just too passive and polite. The foundation of our country is cracking, if not already crumbling.

  3. Chris Cherry on

    actually I like the idea of not mixing church and state, There is no reason why any group or ideology should wear anything when serving the public.. My question is where do we draw the line …

  4. Edward Johnson on

    You’re absolutely right, Bill 21 is disguised ethnic cleansing. Guaranteed to discourage Muslim immigration. I was treated in Montreal recently by a highly specialized personable young female ophthalmologist. She had come to Montreal from Iran with her family at the age of 12. Educated at McGill University School of Medicine and just back from a four year specialization at a leading US hospital. I asked if she planned to stay in Montreal. She said she no longer feels welcome. No doubt there are thousands of others like her.

    But it is quite wrong to suggest that Prime Minister Trudeau is mute on the subject. He has been vociferous in denouncing Bill 21 from the time it was introduced. Quebecers are well aware of his opposition to it. Much of his commentary on the thing has been in French, and probably missed by our parochial English media.

    • I definitely agree with Chris Cherry : religion and state should not be mixed – there should be no religious signs to be shown or worn by anyone serving the public, there will always be someone that will be offended (definitely with 250 different kind of ‘nationalities’ in Canada) and if Hugh would have talked a bit more to the common people he’d probably realised that most of them would not share his opinion. Hugh also better have a closer look to what is happening in Europe (actually all countries of the EU) and then realise he does not want to happen that in Canada (and neither do I). For the record, I am definitely not a Quebec fan but they surely know what’s going on in Europe and want to avoid this is gonna happen in Canada.

      • Louise Choquette on

        I like your interpretation Johny and it is something I heard the Quebec Premier, François Legault, say: sometimes, you have to go with what the majority wants! Otherwise, you risk seeing the rise of the ultra-right who feels their government no longer represents them. The laicicity debate had been going on for over 15 years in Québec and a large majority of people wanted the debate over and dealt with.
        As some of you may recall, in 1976, law 101 was passed, making it mandatory for immigrant children to attend French school. 40 years later, we can see how helpful this has been to integrate the minorities who are now generally tri-lingual. This new law on banning religious signs for employees in position of coercion will have similar effects.

      • Ryan Vallentin on

        Actually Hugh did address your concern about “talking a bit more to the common people” when he said we are a country focused on the populous vote.

        For the record, I agree with your position that there should be a separation of church and state.

  5. Charles Wilson on

    Two years ago my wife and I decided to drive up to the Jazz Festival in Montreal. We had a wonderful time and were entertained by our friends. Montreal opens it heart and displays it best to the thousands of visitors from all over the world who visit.

    On the way back we were among a line of 20 or so cars pulled over in a 401 roadblock allegedly for going more than 30 kph in a construction zone. Nobody had seen the sign, well certainly we hadn’t and I disputed the ticket.

    This involved going to the local Quebec town, finding the ticket clerk, filing a dispute and eight months later flying back up to the small town to appear in court. Both the Judge and the prosecutor listened to the story, heard my evidence and that of the policeman and dismissed the case.

    I found the process of defending myself in French somewhat challenging but was treated with courtesy and consideration and indeed could have insisted the trial be in English, but elected not to.

    During the entire process, I was able to see the Judge’s face, the face of the policeman and the face of the prosecutor. In a courtroom reading body-language and facial expression often tells you as much as any spoken word about how accurate the evidence being given is or how the court is treating it.

    Had the faces been covered it would, in my opinion, have been somewhere between unlikely and impossible to achieve what we consider in both Quebec and in Ontario justice; a fair outcome after a fair trial.

    Which brings me to the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s Bill C 21 and its affect on religious symbols.

    The Quran commands both men and women to behave modestly but contains no precise prescription for how women should dress. Quranic verses have been used in exegetical discussions of face veiling. Coming after a verse which instructs men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, verse 24:31 instructs women to do the same:
    “Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms except what is apparent outwardly, and cover their bosoms with their veils and not to show their finery except to their husbands or their fathers or fathers-in-law”

    Bill 21 seeks “religious neutrality” that is, legalizing employment discrimination based on an individual’s religious expression. Some civil servants, including judges, police officers, and prison guards, are now forbidden from exhibiting any religious affiliation symbols while on the job.

    Premier François Legault, observed, perhaps rather too candidly, Sikhs, Jews and Muslims should look for another line of employment.

    The legislation clearly discriminates against religious symbols being displayed by those in authority but for it to be used to exclude certain people of certain religions from working is considered by many to be out of line. Indeed, since the legislation has a built in antidote to the “notwithstanding” clauses in the Constitution, one rather wonders if the people writing and proposing it thought it was out of line too.

    My own tribe are Scots, highlanders, supporters of the Stuarts, demonstrably the most unsuccessful breed of kings ever to sit on the Scottish or English Throne. A part of our claim to freedom is the freedom to wear a sgiuan-dubh a single-edged knife worn as part of traditional Scottish dress tucked into the top of the kilt hose with only the upper portion of the hilt visible. We don’t quite claim entitlement to carry this fairly lethal weapon as a religious freedom but we do see it as strong evidence of clan cultural entitlement.

    But I have never worn it to court. I did once have a court appearance on Robbie Burns Day and wore tartan trews under the robe, lawyers are required to wear. The Appellate Judge, who was Scots himself, gave me a pass but I got a look as well.

    The Roman word for culture and for religion is the same: cultus. Today religious sub-sects are sometimes referred to by the Latin derivative word “cult”. Some people in our secular society see, as the Romans did, no difference between our municipal culture and religion. Others seek to distinguish religious behaviour from cultural norms and mores. Generally the latter have a tougher task.

    At best this bill tries to restore that neutrality to the discourse. It fails.

    Religion and various local or regional variations use symbols and logos to sell their message rather the same way the soap-flakes and automobile purveyors use them. Crosses seem to be very popular and profoundly misunderstood symbols. I have a photo of my great grandmother sporting a diamond swastika. It was a photo that horrified my children who decided this was evidence we supported Mr Hitler. The photo was taken in 1901 upon her return from the Far East and evidenced her enthusiasm for Buddhism. The National Socialist of Germany took the Buddhist religious symbols and used it as part of their regalia two decades later.

    The burden of a religious symbol is to create a short-hand message as to the displayer’s predisposition to certain religious tenets. A bias if you will. In Canadian today we go to enormous lengths to keep our courts secular and devoid of religiosity or any other bias. The job is to make certain, or as certain as one can be, that everybody feels they are going to get a fair shake, a chance to tell their story to the judge if you will.

    In that court in a very friendly small town just off the 401 in Quebec this absence of bias, either actual or perceivable, was not only followed, but looking back I think the staff bent over backwards to help a somewhat uni-lingual defendant put his case across. I am told as a result of the efforts that day not only was my case dismissed but some, possibly all, of the similar charges against others were stayed or pleas of guilty reversed. I do not say that such a result couldn’t have been reached in a court where faces were covered or other religious symbol predominated, I just say, as a traffic ticket defendant, I would have felt far less confident about the outcome.

  6. Jim Sinclair on

    The story above, about the highly trained Ophthalmologist who said she didn’t feel welcome with this new law in place, is her choice. She can feel and say what she wants and if she chooses to leave, then so be it. The Muslim’s who keep pushing Sharia Law, they will sooner or later get their way. History repeats itself and if we don’t learn from it, then those of us who are bleeding hearts may get their way, and we’ll all have to choose to leave sometime in the future. But where will we go? Hugh went to Church, but how much longer will he have the option. The churches and religions of our forbears are in rapid decline, while the New Order are building mosques all over the place. I will acknowledge that I am not all that well versed in the practice of this Muslim faith, but I find if I bring this up in a coffee shop or a get together, I find that a lot of people are just as fearful as I am.

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