What’s Behind Quebec’s Ban on Religious Symbols

The Canadian province has a complicated relationship with its immigrant communities. Last month, it became the first place in North America to institute such a ban.

A woman in a niqab holds a placard at a protest.
People protest Quebec's new Bill 21, which will ban some public servants from wearing religious symbols and clothing. (Christinne Muschi / Reuters)

MONTREAL—When Sarah Abou Bakr was in elementary school, an elderly woman mocked her mother’s head scarf and shouted insults at her in a busy mall here. Abou Bakr shouted right back. Her mother, who had moved to Quebec from her native Egypt and didn’t know enough French to defend herself, pulled her away. The bystanders did little to help. “That marks you,” Abou Bakr told me in a recent interview. “You don’t forget it.”

Now Abou Bakr is 21, and that memory is more relevant than ever: Quebec, where she was born and raised, and where she still lives, has become the first state or province in North America to ban Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols, including Jewish kippahs, Sikh turbans, and Christian crosses, among some public servants.

Bill 21, or its official name, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” was passed last month, after Quebec’s center-right government held a marathon parliamentary session—and curbed debate in the face of staunch opposition. Yet polls nevertheless show the legislation is popular—63 percent of Quebecers support a ban on judges, police officers, and prison guards wearing religious symbols; 59 percent back such a restriction on teachers, too. The legislation, which applies only to new hires or those who change jobs within an organization, means workers in positions of authority in public schools, courtrooms, law enforcement agencies and other places can no longer wear such symbols.

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.

“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.

For Abou Bakr, who works with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, an advocacy group, and recently graduated from Montreal’s Concordia University with a degree in political science, Bill 21’s passage is not the end of the story. She said it has ushered in a bigger fight against a measure she said is akin to “making Islamophobia legal”—something that she, a black Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, knows the impact of firsthand.

Abou Bakr listed recent incidents in which Muslim Quebecers say they have been victims of racially motivated harassment and violence: an elderly Muslim couple heckled by a neighbor; a family’s home, brightly decorated for the Eid holiday, fired at with a BB gun; a passerby trying to yank a Muslim woman’s niqab off in broad daylight; a woman denied a job by a private company because she wears a hijab. Documenting all these wrongs can seem daunting, especially because their frequency has been increasing over the past several years. In the most serious of these, a gunman opened fire inside a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, killing six people and wounding 19 others.

Abou Bakr said she gets a report about a new Islamophobic incident every few days— and she has encouraged, as well as accompanied, Muslim women to file harassment reports with the police. Sitting in a café in a large, multicultural borough of Montreal only days before Bill 21 was passed, she acknowledged that the debate around the law had been painful. She fears it gives a green light to people to publicly voice their anti-Muslim views, or worse.

“If I just stay silent to any kind of oppression, big or small … it’s as if I’m saying it’s okay,” she told me. “And it’s not okay.”

Less than 24 hours after Bill 21 officially became law, NCCM and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against its application. On July 9, a lawyer for the groups argued that the government is “legislating the practice of religion.” The organizations are seeking a court injunction to keep the province from applying the law; a judge is expected to rule on the stay application this month. But Quebec has invoked a clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that limits legal maneuvers.* Additionally, several questions around Bill 21 remain unanswered, such as how Quebec intends to enforce the legislation and whether the national government in Ottawa may step in.

That hasn’t stopped people from voicing their anger. On June 17, hundreds rallied in front of Legault’s Montreal office, the first major protest since the bill had been signed, a day earlier. I teach I do not convert read one sign. This is not my country read another. The mood was somber, as speaker after speaker described how the law makes them feel not quite Canadian, or Quebecer, enough. They vowed to keep fighting against the legislation.

Abou Bakr, too, said it’s not time to give up.

“Tears are okay. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be sad. But when you’re being oppressed and you actually live in a country where you get to speak up, being sad and crying is not enough,” she said. “Even if you’re alone, you’ve still got to do it. No one’s going to do it for you.”

* This article originally stated that Quebec invoked a clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, baring all challenges to Bill 21 for five years. The clause, however, prevents challenges only on specific sections of the Charter related to freedom of religion and other protected rights.