Traversed by Tensions: Quebec’s Religious Symbols Law

Fatima Ahmad, 23, an Education student at McGill University in Montreal, says that Bill 21 prevents her from working as a public school teacher in Quebec. A fourth year student, graduating in April 2020, she is already making plans to move to the United Arab Emirates or Calgary once she graduates. She is photographed wearing a niqab. Thirty-seven year old Nadia Naqvi is a high-school teacher in Quebec. But she is blocked from advancing up the ladder. “Bill 21 has turned me into a second-class citizen in my own profession—my peers can advance professionally, but I cannot. That’s state-sanctioned discrimination” (Globe and Mail, December 21, 2019). She is wearing a beautifully flowered hijab.

A lawyer in civil and corporate litigation and corporate litigation and constitutional law at Gattuso Bourget Mazzone in Montreal, Nour Farhat, age 28, states forthrightly that Bill 21 has denied her “the ability to work as a prosecutor or lawyer in any Quebec ministry or for any city in the province.” She says: “From now on, I take nothing for granted. My dreams, my goals, my ambitions and my future can be in jeopardy at any moment, for no reason—because I am a Muslim woman who decided to wear the hijab and because I live in democracy of public display that responds to populist majority opinion at the expense of visible minorities” (G and M, December 21, 2019).

These women are just a few of those coming to terms with the consequences of Quebec’s religious symbols law. This law, passed only recently in June 2019, “prohibits public-service workers, including teachers, Crown prosecutors, judges and police officers, from wearing religious garments on the job. The law has derailed the lives and careers of thousands of Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab, Sikh men who wear a turban, Orthodox Jews who wear a kippa, and others” (G and M, December 21, 2019).

Outrage erupted in Quebec over the consequences of Bill 21. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a legal challenge against the law to stay its application. The groups argue that the law is unconstitutional and harms religious minorities and constitutes “state-sanctioned second-class citizenship” (Huffington Post, June 18, 2019). Other bodies, such as Coalition Inclusion Quebec, have raised specific issues on the way Bill 21 targets Muslim women.

Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor have written a beautiful book, Secularism and freedom of conscience (2011) which provides a lucid account of tolerance in a multifaith society. Taylor, long-time and renowned philosophy professor at McGill University, over the last two decades has been at the centre of scholarly and public discourse of how religious and secular citizens can live together. He has also played a key role in Quebec society, where he and Gerard Bouchard led a major inquiry into how cultural differences can be accommodated (Building the future: a time for reconciliation. Final report of the consultation commission on accommodation practices related to cultural differences (2008).

This text retains its pertinence (as does the book Secularism and freedom of conscience [2011]) eleven years later as Quebecers and the rest of Canada comes to grips with Bill 21, which forbids public servants from wearing of religious headgear or symbols. The role of philosophical discourse is basically to enable us to think clearly and generously about topics pertaining to social solidarity and the crafting of a tolerant liberal democratic society. In the “Introduction: secularism today,” Maclure and Taylor state boldly: “One of the most important challenges facing contemporary societies is how to manage moral and religious diversity” (p. 1). Unceasing upheaval in Middle Eastern countries push millions of immigrants beyond their own borders into places where there is little experience of living with those of different faith, values and embodied religious practices. We are living, it seems, in a whirlpool world where many people feel threatened by the strange other in their midst.

Maclure and Taylor make this important observation: “It is only quite recently that the model of a political society founded, on the one hand, on an agreement about basic political principles and, on the other, on respect for the plurality of philosophical, religious, and mora perspective adopted by citizens has taken root as the model most likely to lead to a just and sufficiently harmonious co-existence” (p. 5). This means that: “A liberal and democratic state cannot remain indifferent to certain core principles, such as human dignity, basic human rights, and popular sovereignty. These are the constitutive values of liberal and democratic political systems; they provide these systems with their foundations and aims” (ibid). Thus, this foundation permits people with different conceptions of the good to live together peacefully.

Alas! Those lovely words have been breached by Quebec’s egregious Bill 21. Why has this occurred in a Quebec? The answer lies in Quebec’s history. Before the 1960s (the beginning of the “quiet revolution” and secularizing of Quebec), Quebec embodied the Christendom model. French-Canadian Catholic nationalism, observe Maclure and Taylor, “acted as a common vision behind which the collectivity was supposed to unite, and that unity was seen as a necessary condition for the survival of French-Canadian culture” (p. 18). The Catholic religion dominated every space in the society; Catholicism was the nation’s identity. The root of Bill 21 in Quebec lies deep within the belief that “national unity requires unanimity regarding collective aims [and] has continued to exert a certain hold on people’s minds” (ibid.). A vice-like grip. Quebec, one might say, is ill at ease with the celebrated Canadian idea of multiculturalism. Muslims’ religious way of life is replete with public ritual practices that threaten some Quebecers sense of themselves as a collectivity with Christian origins.

Then, too, Quebec’s notion of the “secular society” is somewhat similar to France. In France, religion is defined as a strictly private matter. Religion has no legitimate role in the public sphere. It has to stay on the sidelines: a radical shift from the Catholic Church’s busybody role in old Quebec. France forbid the public display of religious symbols; state employees were forbidden from wearing of visible religious symbols; girls couldn’t wear the hijab to school. This position we might name as a “strong secularist position.” France identifies its state as “laicist.” But there is a cost attached to this latter position. We have read the select stories of Muslim women at the beginning of the article. Their freedom of conscience is abrogated and restricted. Fundamental rights and socio-economic opportunities are at stake. Bill 21 ruptures social solidarity; it favours one section of society with respect and another with disrespect and derogation of choices woven into a religious way of life.

Charles Taylor is incensed by Bill 21 in Quebec. He believes ardently that it violates the freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression granted by law in liberal pluralist democracies. He and Bouchard had advocated “reasonable accommodation” in their report of 2008. Now, Taylor seems to think he should have taken a tougher stand against the intrusion of racist attitudes and practices in his home province. Be that as it may, in their text Secularism and Freedom of conscience (2011). Maclure and Taylor think that the wearing of religious symbols by all public officials ought not to be prohibited because it is religious.

Rather, a strong case can be made against teachers wearing a “burqa or niqab in class and still adequately discharged her duties as a teacher. On one hand, teaching necessarily entails communication, and covering the face and body does not allow for nonverbal communication. On the other, one of the teacher’s missions is to contribute toward the development of the student’s sociability. It seems reasonable to think that wearing a full veil establishes too much distance between the teacher and her charges. In short pedagogical reasons may be involved to justify the prohibition of the burqa or niqab among teachers” (p. 46).

Is this an appropriate restriction on the “freedom of religion”? One might argue that if teachers wear the veil this does not permit “mutual recognition” between teacher and student—the heart of a liberal pluralist society—in the formative educational space of the school. Many might disagree: the tensions will remain in Quebec and an uneasy Canada will watch with a wary eye.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.