Since the CAQ tabled Bill 21, forbidding public sector employees ‘in position of authority’ from wearing religious symbols at work, opposition against it has been growing, especially in the Montreal area. While Premier Francois Legault appealed for ‘calm and respectful debate’ stating people ‘will come around to accepting and applying the new law in the long run’ and the architect of Bill 21, Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette repeated a robotic-like message as he tried to sell the merits of the legislation wherever he could – voices from human rights organizations and women’s groups to school boards, lawyers as well as borough and suburban mayors have been getting louder.
With a poll showing 74% of Quebecers supporting the legislation (a Léger poll of 1,015 respondents conducted March 22-26 for the CAQ), Premier Legault has repeated he will not hesitate to use the Notwithstanding Clause to stop any legal challenges to Bill 21. With it being criticized as unconstitutional, challenges are expected. Montreal lawyer Catherine McKenzie said they were studying the bill and the possible recourses they could bring against it. She already had success in challenging a part of Bill 62 which was approved in 2017 by the Liberal government (the Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality).
The Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) reacted quickly back in February, unanimously passing a resolution against ‘a bill which would infringe on freedom of religious expression’. Last Friday they made their stance clear with the board announcing it ‘would not enforce the CAQ’s Bill 21 as proposed’. Joining in that call was the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) who stated they would also not enforce it and the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) who called Bill 21 ‘divisive’ and ‘an unnecessary piece of legislation that can only lead to societal discrimination… this government is claiming there is a problem that clearly does not exist’ and they will not enforce it.
The borough of CDN/NDG as well as the municipalities of Montreal West and Westmount all stated they will not enforce the bill. In an email exchange with CTV News the Borough mayor of CDN/NDG, Sue Montgomery wrote, ‘We’re not going to tell anyone what to wear.’
In an interview with the Montreal Times newspaper, Mayor Alan DeSousa of Ville Saint-Laurent had his own perspective. When asked where the city stands on the bill he said, “If the bill would be passed today as it is, it would have virtually very little impact on the way we are currently operating and the only thing we would have concern on, is what impact would it have on future hiring’s… for future hiring’s we would do our best efforts to make sure we get the best people, regardless of what they are wearing, but I will have to see what the bill will say in its final form. He then added, “Our wish is to be able to hire the best person who is most qualified… let me be clear there is no way in any shape that I can say I support this bill, but if your question to me is what is the impact of the bill on the community, I can say that at the present time if the bill is implemented as is, there will be very little impact.” When asked where he personally stood on Bill 21 he replied, “Believe me, as far as I’m concerned people should be allowed to wear whatever they wish to wear, as far as part of their religious affiliations, provided it is not detrimental to the quality of their work and their ability to do the job.”
Mayor Valerie Plante, has not yet made clear the city’s stance on the bill except to say they will be taking part in a commission and will be presenting there, bringing forward ‘the realities specific to Montreal’ and they want to defend that. The Quebec Solidaire party, at their national council meeting last weekend, have made it clear they are against Bill 21 after votes were counted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was concerned it would open the door to discrimination and said that ‘it is unthinkable to me that in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.’
The controversy even goes beyond Canada’s borders with Amnesty International stating ‘the bill contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. What is clear at this point is that Bill 21 is disconcerting to many and hopefully a common and respectful ground will be found.