True North Strong… and Free?

Author: Julianne Cairns

With over a month since the CAQ was elected into majority government, Quebecers have come together to express their concerns over the party’s plans to ban religious symbols for public servants.

The idea of banning religious symbols in Quebec is not a new one. In 2013, the Parti Quebecois introduced Bill 60, otherwise known as the Charter of Quebec Values. Had the bill been passed, public employees would be prohibited from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols on the job. On the Charter of Quebec Values website, which is no longer available, the party classed turbans, hijabs, burkas, kippahs and certain crosses as conspicuous religious symbols to be included in the ban. Adding insult to injury, the website also presented less obvious alternatives to these religious symbols, including a Star of David ring, a pair of star and crescent moon earrings, and a small cross necklace. The ban eventually died on paper in 2014, but has reemerged in 2018 under the Francois Legault’s administration.

Similar to Bill 60, the CAQ’s proposed law would target public employees holding a position of authority in Quebec. Legault has expressed his confidence in the law by communicating his willingness to use the notwithstanding clause if necessary, against the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Notwithstanding” is a clause clearly laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 33, available to all on the Government of Canada’s website. Section 33 states,

“Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.”

This essentially gives provincial legislature the power to ignore the section of the Charter aimed at protecting Canadians’ fundamental freedoms, such as section 2. This would allow the Quebec government to enforce the law, regardless if it respects the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or not.

The ban of religious symbols could directly threaten the fundamental freedoms of Canadians, namely the freedom of religion and expression. In an interesting turn last month, premier Legault explained to reporters at the Francophonie summit, held in Armenia, why the crucifix in the legislature would not be included in the ban. A quote from the CBC regarding his reasoning on this issue included, “In our past we had Protestants and Catholics. They built the values we have in Quebec. We have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs.” The premier made no mention and gave no credit to non-Christian groups for the building of Quebec values, completely ignoring the contribution of indigenous peoples, and countless other cohorts of immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds who have contributed greatly to Quebecois culture over the course of the province’s history. We mustn’t forget that it was a large majority of immigrant workers who were responsible for building our first transcontinental railway in 1881, among many other things in this province. However, this blatant disregard for the contributions of minority groups is certainly nothing new to Quebecers with the proposition made by Pauline Marois just a few years ago, yet it is no less disheartening.

Should this ban proceed, teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters and many other public servants may have to choose between their careers and aspects of their faith – a tough choice for Canadians accustomed to having their freedoms and rights respected and protected.

Protecting the fundamental freedom of expression and religion is in itself preserving Canadian values. To limit Canadians’ abilities to express themselves and exercise their rights to freedom of religion is to throw away a part of what makes us Canadians – tolerance.