On Tuesday evening, David J. Cape, Past CIJA National Chair, presented CIJA’s perspective on Bill 21 (An Act respecting the laicity of the State) during public hearings in Quebec City. While this legislation has implications most directly and immediately for our community in Quebec, many of our constituents outside the province are also following the debate because what happens in one part of Canada can extend to other parts.
We have invited our friend and colleague Brenda Gewurz, Chair, CIJA-QC, to be a guest voice in this edition of A Word from Our Chairs to provide an update.
Given this debate concerns cherished core freedoms, some have, quite understandably, reacted strongly and emotionally and have encouraged CIJA to do the same. We have learned, however, that what may be emotionally satisfying does not necessarily equate to sound advocacy. We have elected to engage directly and constructively with the government of Quebec. As such, we were one of only two faith-based organizations to be invited to present to committee.
|Joel Reitman||Jeffrey Rosenthal|
Thank you, Joel and Jeff, for inviting me to provide an update on Bill 21.
Our position, articulated repeatedly to the Quebec government, is that we remain deeply concerned by this legislation. While we support religious neutrality of the state, we believe that the secularism of the state is an institutional duty, not a personal one. We firmly believe that the commitment to secularism does not rest on the outward appearance of individuals.
CIJA expressed our community’s firm opposition to restricting religious symbols on the basis that Quebec’s secularity is not under threat – and certainly not under any threat that would justify measures undermining both religious freedom and equal access to employment in the public and para-public sectors.
We do not believe there is any evidence that those who will be impacted by the ban on religious symbols have ever demonstrated partiality in the exercise of their professional duties.
We also testified that the proposed legislation is both incoherent and arbitrary: the bill contains no definition of the religious symbols it intends to ban. The bill is also unclear about the mechanism for enforcement and the sanctions to which a lawbreaker would be subject.
Other inconsistencies include the notion that teachers are vested with the same coercive authority as police officers. We used this opportunity to reiterate our call for teachers to be exempt from the measures imposed by this bill.
It is important to understand that this legislation is being tabled by a majority government that presented it as a central plank of its campaign. Quebecers overwhelmingly support this bill, and it will pass. Recognizing this, and while still objecting strongly, our testimony proposed constructive amendments to mitigate the impact it will have on our community.
While we commend the government for including a grandfather clause, in its current form, the bill stipulates that a state employee would lose protection of their acquired rights once transferred or promoted to another position. We again called for an amendment that would protect the acquired rights of state employees for the duration of their employment.
CIJA highlighted the community’s historic roots in Quebec and urged the government, in accordance with the language used by Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette when he tabled the legislation, to reaffirm the plural nature of Quebec’s religious heritage in sections of the bill referring to patrimonial exemptions.
The legislation brought forward by the government is vague and imprecise on too many fronts, and it grants excessive discretion that will inevitably lead to arbitrary and unequal legal interpretations.
Finally, we told the committee that CIJA strongly supports the principle that any legislation that attempts to restrict individual freedoms must pass the test of constitutionality. For this reason, we are particularly concerned by the invocation of the notwithstanding clause.
We will continue to monitor the situation and register our community’s concerns as this legislation makes its way through the process. We delivered a strong principled message on behalf of our community while opposing the bill. As a result, we were thanked by the minister who expressed openness to our proposals, and by the official opposition who noted our brief would contribute to their own internal questioning of the legislation.
We invite you to share your perspective by responding to this email or engaging in the discussion taking place on our social media feeds.