Nearly five years since the Quebec government implemented its secularism law, known as Bill 21, some of the province’s community groups say the legislation continues to have an impact on minority communities.
The law bans certain public workers in positions of authority — including teachers, judges and police officers — from wearing religious symbols at work.
On Thursday, Quebec’s minister responsible for secularism, Jean-François Roberge, tabled Bill 52 — a bill that would extend the use of the notwithstanding clause for five more years, to protect the secularism law from court challenges over Charter violations.
Otherwise, the use of the notwithstanding clause would expire in June.
“We’ve seen, with Bill 21, just how easy it is to take away people’s rights,” said Stephen Brown, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
Defending the government’s decision to protect the secularism law on Thursday, both Roberge and Premier François Legault called it important for maintaining “social peace.”
But Brown says the law has done anything but that.
“The minister Roberge and the premier probably don’t have a lot of friends that live in minority communities,” Brown said in an interview.
“I can guarantee you, that if they had taken the time to go out and speak to Quebecers who are impacted by this law, they would realize that there isn’t more social peace.”
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Brown says the law has pushed some to leave the province and has left others, like teachers who wear religious symbols, without a job.
What is the notwithstanding clause and how does it affect your rights?
There is also concern over the continued use of the notwithstanding clause.
The Ligue des droits et des libertés says the use of the notwithstanding clause with Bill 21 is especially problematic because the government invoked closure to adopt the bill back in 2019, limiting debate.
“Four and a half years after, we know that Bill 21 has human rights impacts … it creates discrimination, especially towards Muslim women,” the group’s spokesperson, Laurence Guénette, said in an interview Friday.
She hopes the province’s new bill will reignite debate around the secularism law.
“A lot of people were against Bill 21 a few years ago and still are. … It’s been said also multiple times that Bill 21 in 2019 was not answering to any concrete threat or danger.”
But Minister Roberge said earlier this week, the use of the notwithstanding clause was and continues to be, necessary.
“The secularism law is an exceptional law,” said Roberge. “We don’t use the notwithstanding clause without thinking about it. We don’t use it often.”
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Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director general of the Quebec Community Groups Network, says that isn’t an excuse.
“It was used in Bill 96 as well, so the use of the notwithstanding clause, we believe, is overreach by the provincial government,” said Martin-Laforge. “We would look to the Federal government to intervene or express their concern about allowing the preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause by provinces.”
A National Assembly committee will study and debate Bill 52 before it can be adopted, but it’s still unclear whether interest groups will have a say.
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