Op-Ed: Quebec’s controversial secularism bill creates and reinforces division

Friday, April 5, 2019

by Dr. Laura Morlock, originally published in The Waterloo Record (April 5, 2019)

There have been four consecutive proposals by Quebec political parties to ban religious symbols in public, but the Coalition Avenir government’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause sets Bill 21 apart, allowing the bill to override Charter rights of religious freedom and expression for five years. It is also broader in its scope, affecting more careers and services than previous legislative attempts, including any jobs the government deems to represent public authority, including Crown prosecutors, judges, teachers, and even wildlife conservation officers.Premier Francois Legault and Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette claim the bill is necessary to protect Quebec culture and to enshrine secularism within public life. The bill’s preamble also notes that Quebec places importance on the equality of women and men, a pointed reference to the hijab and niqab worn by some Muslim women, which Minister of Women Isabelle Charest has twice stated are symbols of “oppression.”

Bill 21’s definition of “religious symbols” is, unsurprisingly, narrow. It relies on a simplistic understanding of religion rooted in Quebec’s Christian past – but religion, and religious systems, are complex. Some emphasize belief systems, while others do not. Some have written sacred texts, and others have none. Some have one deity, multiple gods, or even none. Understanding that “religion” is far more nuanced than systems that look like Christianity brings out some of the problems with banning “all” religious symbols. For instance, Jolin-Barrette said that Rastafarian dreadlocks are not included in the prohibition. Why not? Is Rastafarianism not a “real” religion to the CAQ?

Understanding that religious systems are incredibly diverse also complicates what counts as a symbol of a religion. Dress (which includes any of the ways we modify our bodies, from clothes to hairstyles to jewellery to tattoos) is how we embody what we believe. We all do this, every day, although often unconsciously. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes … change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”

Very few of us give a great deal of thought to what we wear, beyond looking presentable, with perhaps extra attention paid to our preferred styles or colours. Our wardrobes, however, are physical manifestations of belief systems that dictate what we wear, how we wear it, and who can wear what. Western dress is rooted in centuries of culture heavily influenced by Christian and colonial beliefs that affect everything from gender to class and explain why a man in a bikini is a punchline and a Wall Street suit speaks power and money without the wearer uttering a word. Dress also serves to maintain boundaries. It’s part of how “we” know if “you” are part of “us.” Crossing dress boundaries brings rebuke; just ask anyone from the trans community.

By crossing them, religious minorities reveal where dominant Canadian society draws its unspoken dress and social boundary lines. In the process, they reveal assumptions and beliefs about who is a good citizen and who represents a threat to the public good. So which belief systems – excuse me, “religious symbols” – does Quebec’s government believe will endanger the community to such an extent that it warrants invoking the notwithstanding clause?

Besides demonstrating a narrow and largely Christian view of what constitutes religion or religious dress, Bill 21 runs counter to its stated purpose: establishing secularism as the most inclusive “answer” to religious diversity (as though it’s a problem that needs solving). The idea – and it’s a common one — that secularism creates some sort of neutral public space where everyone is equal misses that secularism itself is an idea rooted in a Christian worldview that separates the sacred from the rest of the world. This creates a problem for many faith traditions that have no such division, and functionally cannot separate the two. Bill 21 puts these traditions at a distinct disadvantage.

 Bill 21 creates and reinforces division between the majority and religious minorities. It violates the rights to religious freedom found both in the Canadian Charter and Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in order to establish a one-size-fits-all public culture that claims to be neutral but reinforces Christian and Western beliefs and practices.

The Coalition Avenir government believes that Bill 21 will eliminate divisions in Quebec public life and foster unity. However, a law that tells people to leave religion at home and participate in public life without their treasured religious symbols tells religious minorities that they are not welcome in public spaces.

Dr. Laura Morlock is a scholar of religious dress and human rights in Canada. Morlock holds a PhD in Religious Diversity in North America from the University of Waterloo, and is the author of How It Seams: Religious Dress, Multiculturalism, and Identity Performance in Canadian Society, 1910-2017 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). She is a lecturer at Renison University College and Ryerson University’s School of Fashion. 

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