Challenging a law that divides and endangers

By Noa Mendelsohn Aviv and Mustafa Farooq
Montreal Gazette | June 17, 2019

Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, passed in the Quebec National Assembly this past weekend. Bill 21, of course, is the law that will ban Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others who wear symbols of their faith from pursuing careers in numerous public sector jobs.

As civil liberties advocates, we have had Bill 21 at the front of our minds since its introduction in March. And this has become even more concerning because of what happened in Quebec City merely a few weeks ago.

On May 25 at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque, an individual allegedly assaulted one of the congregants after making several racist and Islamophobic statements and demanding that congregants show him their passports.

This was at the very same mosque where, on Jan. 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire, ending the lives of six Quebec Muslims and injuring numerous others. The same mosque that has been subjected to implicit and explicit threats, including violent online statements, some resulting in criminal convictions. And the same mosque whose leaders were targeted in an arson attack.

It is unthinkable that the widows, daughters and victims of the attack at this same mosque, only two years later, would be pushed out of, or prevented from joining, the teaching profession and many public service positions, simply for their religious convictions.

What we have been hearing and seeing leading up to the passage of Bill 21 makes it clear that Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others who wear religious symbols are not only going to be barred from positions as teachers, prosecutors or police officers, they will become punching bags of public discourse — an ongoing concern that has now been exacerbated. The new law sends a clear message that minority faith group members are not welcome or wanted in Quebec. Make no mistake, this law threatens not only the jobs and freedoms of individuals; its collateral consequences result in threats to their physical safety, as well.

These consequences go against what we believe Quebecers value most: the right of a minority to maintain its identity and flourish in every aspect of life. Like many members of immigrant, cultural and religious minorities, we understand the desire to maintain a distinct identity. Given the nature of our work protecting civil liberties, we have a deep understanding of the intricacies of protecting minority rights within a vast, diverse society. We also support, however, the universal messages of equality and freedom of religion, and recognize these values as fundamental, internationally recognized human rights.

These values are enshrined in Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. And it is in the spirit of equality and freedom that countless individuals in Quebec have taken to the streets to protest Bill 21, and that many organizations in the province are engaging in acts of resistance.

So, we are not standing down. We are standing up to legislation that divides. Because we know that discriminatory laws that limit freedom have no place in a democratic society. This is why we have pledged to fight Bill 21. When governments try to trample people’s rights, civil liberties organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and National Council of Canadian Muslims will always be there, in solidarity with all those who resist, to make sure that governments are held to account.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv is the director of the Equality Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). Mustafa Farooq is a lawyer and the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). CCLA and NCCM have filed a constitutional challenge of the Act.