Muslim-Canadian Fatemeh Anvari’s world was turned upside down last week. The Quebecer was reassigned from her role as a third grade teacher. This was in response to her refusing to take off her hijab. Parents found out about her reassignment in a letter sent by her school, the Chelsea Elementary School. Condemnation soon followed. “The parents were informed the teacher would be moving out of the classroom in a separate role. Living in a small community that we do, news quickly spread of the reason behind that,” one parent told the Canadian media. “As a parent of the school and in the community we live in, it’s very shocking to see this bill come into action.”
The bill this mother is referring to is a law that is informally called Bill 21, or An Act respecting the laicity of the State. Effectively, it allows the Province of Quebec, Canada’s French-speaking province, to ban people from wearing religious symbols in government institutions. A Muslim woman cannot wear a hijab, Jewish person cannot wear a yarmulke, nor can a Sikh wear a turban in places like schools, government services offices and in the legislature.
This law is yet another fault line between English and French Canada. There is a divide between Anglophone and Francophone Quebecers on Bill 21. Nationally, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees religious freedom under section 2. That is why in English provinces, no religious symbol ban exists. But Quebec follows in France’s footsteps and employs a specific kind of secularism. They follow laicite.
Laicite is more freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. This philosophy makes it the duty of the state to liberate people from religion. However, upon closer examination a serious hypocrisy within the French Canadian state reveals itself, which alludes to a larger culture of bigotry in Quebec.
Ostensibly, the law can also apply to Christian symbols as well. A month after Bill 21 was passed in June 2019, the Quebec National Assembly, the province’s legislature, removed the crucifix that hung above the speaker’s chair.
That crucifix has been a point of contention for years. Even before Bill 21, Quebec modeled itself in the style of France’s laicite. The government of Premier Francois Legault (leader of Quebec) had signaled that such a law as Bill 21 could come in after they won their election in 2018. When asked if the proposed law would include the crucifix above the speaker’s chair, a spokesperson basically said no. This person justified this by calling it a “heritage object.”
Bill 21 isn’t the only example of the Quebec state being against any culture that is not French and Catholic. One of the more comical controversies in Canada has been dubbed pastagate. An Italian restaurant in Quebec was forced to remove the word pasta from its menu by the Quebec Office of the French language… Because pasta is an Italian word. The story garnered so much ridicule in the country that the head of the office was forced to resign.
In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing six and injuring 19. During that same year, there was a 151 percent rise in hate related violence from 2016, the previous year.
Often, Quebec’s leaders have stoked anti-minority resentment. The Quebec referendum of 1995 is a touchstone in the province’s history. Quebecers voted on whether to stay part of Canada or to leave it. The vote to remain won out by a hair: 50.58 percent. Then Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, blamed “money and the ethnic vote.”
A Quebec court did strike down parts of Bill 21 in April of 2021. It can no longer apply to English language school boards in Montreal specifically. However, it remains to be seen where the bill goes from there.