While the law is specific to Quebec, it comes amid arguments elsewhere in the world around restricting the display of religious symbols—though in most cases, Muslim women are bearing the brunt. In 2011, France banned full-face veils, such as the burka or niqab, in public, and has sought to restrict full-body swimsuits (“burkinis”) on beaches as well. A ban of full-face veils is also on the books in Belgium, Austria, and Denmark, while similar measures are being considered by other European countries, or are being adopted on a more local scale.
Read: Does the burqa have a future in Europe?
“It is quite similar to what we have in Belgium, in France, in Germany,” Quebec Premier François Legault told CBC, the Canadian broadcaster, in defense of the new law. “So when I hear some people saying that Quebec becomes racist, do they mean that Germany, France, and Belgium are racist?”
That this debate is happening in Quebec is no surprise, given its history and how it views itself compared with the rest of Canada. Some Quebecers fear that the broader Canadian policy of multiculturalism will erase their “distinct identity” as a French-speaking province. These concerns have translated into efforts such as Bill 21.
The law is a decade in the making; for years, lawmakers discussed legislating secularism and tried to ban religious symbols in public. The Catholic Church has long held sway here, which has left many Quebecers with the view that state secularism should come above all else. Bill 21 states it clearly: “It is important that the paramountcy of State laicity be enshrined in Québec’s legal order.” The province’s version of laicity is not quite the laïcité most commonly associated with France, which has a complete separation of religion from the public space, but it’s not too far off either.
The law’s supporters present the measure as being intrinsically part of the province’s identity. Being a Quebecer, they say, means believing that religious symbols might be fine in private, but that public servants shouldn’t be allowed to wear them, lest they impede their decision making at work. This view has some contradictions, most notably the fact that a large cross hung on the wall of the provincial Parliament in Quebec City for decades. The government initially argued that the cross was cultural, not religious, but finally took it down this month, in an attempt to show that Bill 21 applies equally to all religions.
Still, civil-liberties groups say the law is an example of rising xenophobia in Quebec. They argue that people who wear symbols of their religion in public already feel ostracized in Quebec; the new law makes it legal to deny them government jobs. The state’s job is to protect minority rights, not curb them—and Bill 21 is doing precisely that, they contend.
But the government has presented the law as striking a delicate balance between personal and collective freedoms. “I think it’s important for social coherence, for better living together that after 11 years we move on to other things,” Premier Legault said earlier this year, referring to the 2008 government-appointed commission that called for “reasonable accommodation” as a way to better integrate immigrants into Quebec. In other words, with a majority in Quebec’s Parliament to push the law through, the province can finally close this chapter once and for all.