Kippah-wearing Jews in the Canadian province of Quebec would be banned from teaching in public schools, serving as judges and from holding an array of government jobs under a new law proposed by the province’s ruling party.
Bill 21, officially known as An Act Respecting the Laicity [secularism] of the State, would prohibit public employees in certain positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as kippahs, hijabs, and turbans while on the job. It would also prevent citizens from accessing certain public services while wearing a face covering. The sources of support for the bill from voters and politicians are varied. Some supporters may be driven by fear or animus toward recent Muslim immigrants. For them, the bill offers a way to stigmatize the presence of visible Muslim communities in Quebec. For others, however, the bill draws on a local tradition opposing organized religion in public life. Whatever the exact mix of motivations driving the bill, it places observant Jews in the crossfire, and has inspired concerns and political resistance in Quebec’s Jewish community.
Since it was announced, the bill has been severely criticized by religious minority groups, the mayor of Montreal, politicians from the opposition and in the federal government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the Quebec Bar Association.
“Obviously this law represents an egregious infringement on personal freedoms, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Quebec branch of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Of course the Jewish community has and will continue to oppose it in a very passionate and vigorous way.”
While much local media coverage of the bill has focused on how it could affect public school teachers, a group that includes few observant Jews who need to wear head coverings, Montreal politician Lionel Perez said the Jewish community likely won’t be untouched. Perez, himself a kippah-wearing Jew who serves as a city councilor and interim leader of the city’s official opposition party, pointed to language in the bill which would prevent lawyers who wear religious garb from being eligible to represent government institutions in court.
“There’s no doubt there are not many people of the Jewish faith who work in the public school system who are actually teachers. There are a few of them, there’s definitely an increasing number coming from the Muslim community,” he said. “But there’s also lawyers in private practice who will no longer be able to get contracts or mandates from the state or from the cities. There’s quite a few members of the bar who are Jewish and wear their kippah. There’s no doubt there’s going to be an impact.”
Other jobs that would be affected include police officers, judges, some court administrators and arbitrators, as well as the legislature’s speaker and vice speaker.
“The numbers of Jews are certainly not great,” said Poupko. “But everyone is affected by the message it sends and the message many Jews see in this legislation is there’s only one way to look in Quebec that’s acceptable.”
Legal scholars contend that the bill violates the portion of the Canadian Constitution known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, a provision of the charter known as the Notwithstanding Clause allows provincial legislatures to protect legislation from being overturned, even if it violates the charter itself. That clause is in Bill 21, which would eliminate the most obvious avenue for challenging it in court, said Robert Leckey, Dean of McGill University’s Faculty of Law.
“There are lawyers who are having debates on how to use the things that are outside the reach of the Notwithstanding Clause … but I think there’s a good chance this will block the most obvious and many of the most effective ways people might otherwise challenge it,” he said.
It’s not the first time such a bill has garnered controversy in Quebec. In 2013, a similar bill, dubbed the Charter of Values, was introduced by the then-ruling Parti Quebecois, but died after the PQ was defeated in a 2014 election. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has said he has compromised in the shaping of this bill by including a grandfather clause that would prevent current employees from losing their jobs.
Polls have shown as much as two-thirds of the province support the bill, with much of that coming from rural areas with few visible or religious minorities. The bill is less popular in the multicultural metropolis of Montreal, where there have been numerous marches and protests against Bill 21. In April, the mayor of the heavily Jewish suburb of Hampstead said the law would result in a peaceful “ethnic cleansing” of the province. While the mayor was criticized by political leaders on all sides of the debate for that remark, Perez said he does fear that the bill could make it difficult for Montreal to attract foreign talent to its economy.
“As it is, we have a lack of qualified workforce. We’re always trying to get bigger and better talent,” he said. “A lot of times, we’re competing with different cities and while we have a great quality of life … if people feel that society is not as welcoming as it can be, we may lose a lot of those people who come from different countries.”
The motivation behind the bill and its support could come partly from xenophobia, said Poupko, but there is also a cultural mistrust of organized religion rooted in Quebec’s past. Until the 1950s, much of the province’s culture and politics was dominated by the Catholic Church, which was overthrown by a movement known as the Quiet Revolution.
“Some sentiment in favor of the law is driven by a phenomenon that has affected North America and Europe, which is a profound sense of unease with the recent immigrant community,” he said. “Therefore, the way to express that is in opposition to their wardrobe choices. But much of the sentiment in Quebec is different.”
“Many Quebecers see the immigrant community, especially the Muslim community, as representing a lifestyle which they thought they had put in their past,” he said. “This very public manifestation of religion irks them not just because of xenophobia but because of their own experience in Quebec where religion was cast aside in the embrace of the modern world.”
With Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec party holding a majority of seats in the provincial legislature, Poupko acknowledged there’s very little chance Bill 21 won’t become law in June.
“There’s an overwhelming majority of support for this. I believe the only way to really change minds is to change the conversation away from ideas of [secularism], church and state or religious wardrobe to individuals. Not to talk about the place of religion in Quebec but the individuals who will be affected by it. When Quebecers begin to see individuals who have difficulty getting jobs because of this legislation, public opinion may change, but it may be too late for the legislative process.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Adam Kovac is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work has appeared in RollingStone.com, Esquire.com, Playboy.com, The Cut, CNN, USA Today, and others.