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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Religious discrimination

Religion is defined as a system of faith and worship. This has both traditional and non-traditional interpretations. As an example, for many, Montreal’s hockey team is a source of faith and worship. This seems to fit some definition of religion, n’est ce pas? Before long, with a narrowing definition of acceptable behaviour, it may be illegal in secular Quebec to wear a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey to work. The same religious-type fervor for sports teams exists in almost every town and village in the world. There are many other examples of quasi-religious behaviour.

My thoughts today are prompted by Quebec’s Bill 21, crafted to outlaw the wearing of religious symbols at work by public sector workers holding positions of ‘authority’ in Quebec. This would include teachers, police officers, judges, and public prosecutors. For a time, it was proposed to include elected officials but that was struck down in the courts. So… it will be legal for a member of the provincial legislature (in Quebec, called the National Assembly) to wear a hijab, or a turban, or a yarmulka, but not for the civil servants who report to them. Something seems not right about that logic.

This controversy jumped to the front burner of public discourse across Canada with a question posed in last week’s debate of party leaders in advance of next week’s federal election. Posed by moderator Shachi Kurl and directed to Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet:

“You deny that Quebec has problems with racism. Yet you defend legislation such as bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones, and allophones. For those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”

Blanchet’s response?

“The question seems to imply the answer you want. Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec.”

That’s an interesting deflection. What Quebec values are we talking about here? It appears that La Belle Province is following the lead of some European countries seeking to marginalize ‘those not like us.’ Isn’t that discrimination in very explicit terms? Where do the ‘alleged’ Quebec values start and stop, and how do they square with those values embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms? I find it curious, indeed, that it took intense pressure for Premier Legault to ‘compromise’ in the described ‘goodwill gesture’ to remove the crucifix from above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. He had argued earlier that the crucifix was a cultural symbol, not a religious symbol. Huh?

We Canadians love to hold ourselves up to the world as a diverse and tolerant society, welcoming people from all walks of life. History says something entirely different, though I believe we are trending in the right direction. The journey is a long one with many setbacks yet to come. Canadian xenophobia is not a relic of the distant past. It’s our here and now.

As we watch the discrimination drama play out for our friends south of the border, one of our own largest provinces is actively pursuing legislation that very explicitly creates and advances systemic discrimination. We are not immune. This is not an historical quirk of our society, but purposeful exclusionary design. The government in Quebec appears heading backward, not forward, in the direction of a medieval ‘us and them’ tribal position. Presented under the guise of a ‘secular’ society, this particularly targeted initiative will disproportionately limit the opportunity for participation by Muslim women.

I am as secular a thinker as there is in matters of state. I’m no religious expert, for sure, but have yet to encounter a religion with which I do not have issues. This said, it’s not my place to judge for others. It’s just not my place. If you want to wear the Montreal Canadiens jersey, it’s your right to be wrong. I will not object. Moreover, I will defend your right to be wrong. My game-watching blanket, for the record, declares the Toronto Maple Leafs as the team of choice. I’m sure the Maple Leafs jersey is already banned entry to some establishments in Montreal.

Exclusion of minorities from employment in the civil service (at any level) is a huge red flag all on its own. As frightening as this already is, even greater concern presents itself on the near horizon. Bill 21, packaged with Bill 96, (entrenching French as the official language of Quebec and restricting the usage of any other language) represents the thin but widening edge of a very dangerous wedge. If the Quebec government is successful now in narrowing their definition of ‘normal’, what’s next? Narrowing definitions of normal have been proven again and again throughout history as an advancing and deadly campaign of oppression. We live in a shrinking world that holds much promise for a salad bowl society (where many flavours are present in one dish and at the same time sustained individually as contributing elements to the overall experience). This is no salad bowl. It’s not even poutine, which I love dearly, though not religiously. From where I sit, this recipe from the government of Quebec is both tasteless and in very bad taste. I cry foul. Fire the chef.

With respect,

Kevin Graham


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