In the francophone province of Quebec, Canada, a new bill has come into place banning public servants from wearing religious symbols; becoming the first province in North America to initiate a legal precedent. 

The new bill came into law on Wednesday 19 June 2019 receiving a majority of 73 votes in favour with 35 who voted against in the National Assembly. Under the bill, those “in positions of authority” such as teachers, police, and government lawyers are forbidden from wearing religious symbols such as Christian crucifixes, Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes. 

Critics say, the Quebec law unfairly targets religious minorities and it is a threat to Canada’s multicultural diversity.

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Speaking to the media after the announcement of the bill, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh voiced his concerns that the bill represented a threat to Quebec’s rich cultural and religious tapestry.

“It’s deeply saddening. This is a bad decision. It’s wrong, it’s hurtful, it divides a community,” expressed an aggrieved Singh.

Politician and lawyer, Singh, who wears the turban as part of his religious practice as a Sikh, expressed that this law may hinder many young children from achieving them dreams and making a contribution to one of these professions.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh spoke to reporters in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

In Quebec, the issue has preoccupied political discussions for more than a decade. While elsewhere in the country, these discussions have not generally taken up much mainstream conversation at all, Federal leaders have since chimed in with their opinions on the matter.

Speaking to reporters in Washington DC, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared his disapproval of the bill.

“We do not feel that it is a government’s responsibility, or in a government’s interest, to legislate on what people should be wearing,” said Prime Minister Trudeau.

Whilst, Quebec Premier François Legault has defended the province’s new secularism law, arguing the majority are in favour.

“But you can’t forget the majority either. The majority was asking for secularism,” Legault said.

Previously a French colony, Québec is a predominantly French-speaking province located in eastern Canada that has deep French roots.

In France, there is a notion called Laïcité, which is a founding principal of the nation. Enshrined in the Constitution, this concept describes a strict separation of the state and religion.

Protests against Bill 21. Source: cultmtl.com

This unique brand of secularism which stems from a history of authoritarian rule by former the French monarchies who used divine authority to rule. The experience has since etched itself in the French psyche. Now the principal of Laïcité, has made its way to Quebec legislative vernacular.

In May, United Nations investigators previously warned the Quebec legislature about the risk of bringing forth this ban. It was stated that the ban could be in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was a treaty signed by Canada in 1976, that Quebec should also be obliged to comply with.

“We have a strong Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and we will certainly ensure that our views are well known and continue to defend Canadians’ rights,” said Mr Trudeau.

According to a professor from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières, Bruce Maxwell, the influx of immigrant culture is seen as a threat to the unique culture of Quebec. 

“This (new legislation) links back to …(the) decades-old issue of Quebec asserting itself as a distinct society from the rest of Canada and the rest of North America,”

Sadly, religious discrimination is not out of place in Quebec which saw a mass shooting in 2017, at a mosque where six worshippers were killed and nineteen others injured when a man opened fire shortly after the end of Isha (evening prayer).

Legal critics have also criticised the bill because, in order to insulate it from potential legal challenges, the Government has chosen to invoke a rarely used loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause”. This enables the Canadian legislature to override some constitutional rights like freedom of religion or expression.