Québec’s Bill 21: Secularism Or Religious Freedom? – OpEd


Quebec’s secularism law, commonly known as Bill 21, was passed into law by the Quebec National Assembly on June 16, 2019. The law, which enjoys majority support amongst the French speaking Quebeckers, is based on the province’s commitment to secularism. It extends to state employees in positions of authority like teachers, police and judges by requiring a non-religious dress code on several categories of public servants. For example, Article 6 of the law prohibits wearing “clothing, a symbol, jewelry, adornments, accessories or headwear” that is connected to any religious belief or could be “reasonably considered” as such.

Bill 21 has divided the country once again into two solitudes along linguistic lines with the French speaking majority in Québec standing for a secular non-religious society and the rest of Canada (ROC) opposed to it on grounds of religious freedom. Yet, this polarity really does not explain the present political malaise adequately. My contention is that what is really in play here is the concept of nation building.

Ever since its passage, Bill 21 has stoked the fires of those opposed to it, especially Muslims who believe that it is based on some form of Islamophobia although the law extends to all religions including Sikhs, Christians and Jews. Some federal and provincial politicians and even Ambassadors have publicly expressed their opposition. Some have been opposed but defer to provincial autonomy in this field of legislation.

Most recently, an English language school board in Québec decided to test the law by hiring a person who publicly defied the law. The Board was required to move the employee into a different function while awaiting the results of a court challenge. The last two federal election campaigns were also impacted by the debate as Québec nationalist candidates and parties were roundly criticized for supporting the law.

How then is Bill 21 related to nation building when so many of the political elites and their media acolytes clamor that it is either a law about secularism or one that is detrimental to individual freedom by targeting religious faith and its unfettered practice? This article does not pose the question whether Bill 21 is discriminatory or not. It seeks to explain the negative reaction to the Bill. The nature of the criticism requires a short digression back to the historical development of the two founding nations of Canada. Interestingly enough, North American Aboriginal nations do not appear to have much of a stake in this controversy. Many are already secular while others worship tribal entities and uphold shared community values.

We begin this intellectual journey to understand the reaction of ROC political elites and social media to Bill 21 as ‘discriminatory’ by referring to George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, a seminal work of Canadian political philosophy. Grant predicted that the absorption of Canada by its southern neighbor would end any viable concept of an English Canadian nation. This might explain the reaction to Bill 21 as ‘discriminatory’ as an expression of cultural and social loss and ressentiment. Grant laments the loss of a unique and special North American nation independent of the American individualist dream of Horatio Alger and imperialist policies like Manifest Destiny. According to Grant, Canada was once a nation with meaning and purpose.

For Grant, English Canada’s choice was between nation building and North American integration. According to him, the latter would result in the disappearance of an English Canadian nation. Sadly, English Canada appears to have lost on both counts. Its culture has been ravaged by rampant Americanism, which fostered the destruction of any social and cultural values in favor of ‘rugged’ individualism. Liberty or death as it is written on the State of New Hampshire license plates.

Even on that score, the NAFTA negotiating debacles have clearly signed the death warrant of any Canadian economic trading renaissance based on economic multilateralism. Instead, Canada’s economic prosperity is constantly confronted with multiple trade disputes with the USA on everything from softwood lumber to the sale of electric cars. The Autopact lies in ruins and the dairy industry is significantly damaged. Aluminum tariffs, pipeline embargoes and a host of agricultural products have become hostage to the Buy America policies of President Joe Biden. Those who opted for continentalism failed to heed the dynamism and longevity of ultra- protectionist forces in the United States. Canadian Embassy efforts in Washington to ‘reason’ with the American executive and legislative branches are ineffective and doomed to failure given the eclectic nature of political power in the United States. Continentalism and economic protectionism cannot co-exist on the North American continent. ROC leaders and elites need to learn this hard political truth.

The choice of continentalism has failed. Attempts to return to the heyday of commercial multilateralism have created economic and social disintegration of communities across Canada. Ex-President Trump was the wrecking ball but Joe Biden continues to sow economic dislocation in Canada using Buy America policies under the cover of trilateral integration agreements like NAFTA 1 and 2. In the process, any coherent national vision for English Canada has been scuttled.

The arrival of new Canadians has also obscured the quest for a nation although not so much by creating new centers of power especially in the cities but by creating opportunities for Canadian political elites to exploit and profit from the ongoing loss of national identity. In a word, the immigrants are not the problem, the Canadians are and their elites seek to extract political torpil (or influence pull and peddling) and use them as they did the aboriginal nations before. By raising the flag of multiculturalism in an effort to win the allegiance of the growing number and specificity of new Canadians, the political elites and their media allies have sealed the fate of Grant’s yearning for nationhood.

The present Liberal Party hegemony led by Justin Trudeau is responsible for legitimizing this scurrilous practice using a model based on similar methods by 19th century Tammany Hall in America. The new Canadians are a source of political dupes to be cajoled and rewarded while obscuring further any common identity other than a nefarious and extremist vision of multicultural pandering. Those who oppose Tammany Hall are summarily branded as racists opposed to new Canadians and individual freedoms. The ROC reaction to Bill 21 in Québec exhibits these same exclusionary values.

The irony of these ad hominem attacks is that based on anecdotal evidence, many English Canadians would themselves be in favor of a Bill 21 in their political jurisdiction. This might explain why polls measure exclusively Québec public opinion on this topic, leaving the ROC opinion to one’s imagination only. The supposition is that there is a gap between what ROC elites believe and what they would like their population to believe and the majority of English Canadians, whose opinions go unmeasured for fear of the potential discovery that they might want a Bill 21 themselves. At the very least, one can argue that popular ROC opposition to Bill 21 has not been characterized by any groundswell of support outside Québec.

French Québec

The choice between continentalism and nationalism has never manifested itself in Québec in this way and the national identity does not hinge on any side of this antinomy. It is because continentalism is not perceived as a danger since it originates in a foreign country and it expresses itself in a different language. Continentalism is not considered an existential threat to the Québec nation. English Canada, when it reacts to Bill 21, is based on loss of identity and nostalgia of what was or may have been. This reaction is a direct threat to the values of French Québec. It may express itself as opposition to secularism as French Quebeckers might think, or as a pompous celebration of difference with the assistance of Tammany Hall style politics under the guise of religious freedom. It is really about how both French Québec and English Canada manage and understand the essential antimony between continentalism and nationalism. English Canada’s loss of identity and nostalgia of the same are the real reasons for its vehement reaction against French Québec.

Québec’s identity crisis was solved in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Meech Lake accord. Liberal Party Premier of Québec, Robert Bourassa, makes this clear in his statement before the Québec National Assembly ‘Le Québec sera libre de ses choix’. In this, Bourassa sides with the sovereignty movement by indicating that the National Assembly is the only legitimate political authority in its jurisdiction. The rest is smoke and mirrors, which only antagonizes English Canadian elites by making clear power and legitimacy in Québec do not flow from the federal capital or from other provinces.

The English Canadian elites’ criticism of Bill 21 is about nation building. Québec was already a secular society since la Révolution tranquille in the 1960’s. Bill 21 flows from this principle. It reflects secularism, which pre-dates Bill 21. Québec secularism would exist without it. In terms of religious freedom, the Bill can hardly claim much of a universal impact since Québec is already a society with conclusive evidence to convince anyone that it respects religious freedoms – schools public and private, newspapers, universities, churches, charities etc. Moreover, the Bill applies to all religions equally and targets a small and specific fraction of state employees. The fact that Muslims feel especially targeted should raise warning flags and questions in both camps.

The reality is that French Québec and the ROC can and do already exist side by side as different countries. Michael Ignatieff’s interview with the BBC just before the 2014 Scottish referendum lays out a Québec sovereignty referendum process since 1980, which has progressively emancipated French Québec from its ROC allegiance shackles. The empowerment of ROC elites to unfurl their extremist exclusionary multicultural ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on a refusal of French Québec nationhood, the nostalgic loss of their own nation to a fallen unworkable vision of North American continentalism.

Bruce Mabley

Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.

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