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Bill 21: a return to Quebec’s dark past

By Andrew Caddell      

My fear is the bill will encourage the worst elements of Quebec society to attack Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish citizens.

Quebec Premier François Legault's government has introduced Bill 21, which purports to ensure the neutrality of the government by insisting no one in a position of authority be allowed to wear ‘religious symbols’ while exercising their functions. Photograph courtesy of CAQ/Instagram
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In the 1930s, the start of a time referred to in Quebec as “la grande noirceur” (the great darkness), the government of premier Maurice Duplessis passed the Padlock Law, otherwise known as An Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda.

Under the law, authorities could shut meeting places of anyone suspected of being a subversive. The law also allowed the police to destroy any materials related to “suspect” beliefs, and was applied not only to Communist Party meetings, but also to unions and even Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as their beliefs ran contrary to the Catholicism of Duplessis’ Quebec.

The Communist Party challenged the law in the Supreme Court in 1957, and won. The case of Jehovah’s Witnesses was more complicated. A Montreal restaurateur, Frank Roncarelli, was punished by Duplessis for providing bail to the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the province revoked his liquor licence. Two prominent lawyers, F.R. Scott and A.L. Stein, took up Roncarelli’s case and eventually won at the Supreme Court, many years after the restaurant went out of business.

The purpose of the Padlock Law was allegedly to protect Quebec society from so-called “alien” beliefs, but it effectively singled out certain people and brought the weight of the state down against them. Fortunately, despite popular support for Duplessis, the courts countered an oppressive law.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, as Quebec Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government tabled Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, in the National Assembly. It purports to ensure the neutrality of the government by insisting no one in a position of authority, including judges, police officers, prison guards, and educators, be allowed to wear “religious symbols” while exercising their functions.

Within lapsed Catholic Quebec, there is no fear of fervent believers wearing giant crucifixes to work: the targets of the law are Muslim women and Sikh and Jewish men. The wearing of a hijab by a school teacher, or a turban or kippa by a police officer or judge will become a forbidden act (although those already working are exempted).

The response of those opposed has been immediate and loud. Municipalities on the island of Montreal and the English school board there will not impose it, and even the authors of the eponymous Bouchard-Taylor Report on Cultural and Religious Accommodation have denounced the law. Thousands of protesters walked through downtown Montreal over the weekend.

Paradoxically, the law is popular in rural areas of Quebec where the CAQ is strong, but where there are few Muslims, Sikhs, or Jews. It’s unpopular in the cities where these communities are common.

The law was one of the main planks in the CAQ’s winning election platform last year. In a short video posted on YouTube, Legault attempted to appear statesmanlike in explaining Bill 21’s “raison d’être,” but he sounded inarticulate, closing abruptly with a dismissive “that’s how we live in Quebec.”

It reminded me of the comment by former journalist Graham Fraser who recalled hearing Legault tell a Parti Québécois meeting years ago that, having grown up in Anglo West Island of Montreal, “I hate them just as much as you do.”

While Legault and his cabinet are turning themselves inside out trying to decide how to impose sanctions on those who reject the bill, they should be more worried about fuelling intolerance. For when a legislature passes a law, there is an implicit value, or social endorsement, attached to it. When a law provides for official discrimination, the door is open to any yahoo to go after the presumed “offenders.” My fear is Bill 21 will encourage the worst elements of Quebec society to attack Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish citizens.

Premier Legault likes to say this law turns the page on the secularism debate; instead, I think he has become the new Duplessis. La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon excoriated him, writing, “My ancestors did not build a country over the past 400 years to ensure that in 2019, their descendants would stamp out the rights of minorities.”

It is worth noting Duplessis’ reputation was so tarnished that a statue of the former premier was hidden away in a warehouse for decades until René Lévesque resurrected it in the 1970s. Despite his nationalist credentials, Lévesque was fond of saying that a Québécois is someone who pays taxes in Quebec.

By proposing Bill 21, Legault fails to recognize that credo, but even worse, he may have opened a Pandora’s box. The events of the past two weeks have the feel of a new “grande noirceur.”

Andrew Caddell is retired from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as an adviser to Liberal governments. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a principal of QIT Canada. He can be reached at pipson52@hotmail.com.

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