The Canadian province of Quebec has banned public workers from wearing religious symbols while on duty. Bill 21 was passed with a large majority that included the right-wing party Coalition Avenir Quebec. The new law applies to teachers, judges, and police, and includes headscarves, turbans, kippahs, and crosses, and has received criticism both locally and abroad, as well as from Muslim and Jewish groups.
“Before this law came into effect, within the public service you would see this great diversity of religious symbols. It was very clear that the state wasn’t trying to force some particular religion down somebody’s throat,” Canadian correspondent Dimitri Lascaris told The Real News Network’s Marc Steiner. “You don’t need to introduce that kind of a prohibition to maintain a separation of religion and state. This is all about targeting particular religions. And I have to say I think it’s primarily about targeting Islam. But not only Islam.”
Lascaris explained how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the Canadian “Bill of Rights”—includes the Notwithstanding Clause, which allows provinces to disregard or bypass some rights included in the Charter. The Notwithstanding Clause could make it hard to repeal Bill 21.
“The Quebec government decided it felt so strongly about individuals wearing religious symbols in the public service that they were basically decided to exercise the nuclear option,” Lascaris said. “And they had put into this law a declaration that notwithstanding any violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it shall have effect.”
“We may see challenges under other forms of legislation, like human rights legislation,” said Lascaris. “I can’t really predict how those legal challenges will fare without knowing the precise nature of the legal theory being advanced. But at the end of the day, they may all be doomed to failure because of the use of the Notwithstanding Clause.”
Bill 21’s passage is part of a general rightward shift in provincial politics in Canada, Lascaris explained: “Canada is proving itself by no means to be exempt from these larger geopolitical forces that we’re watching unfold,” Lascaris said. “We are watching in this country the rise of populism, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, out and out Islamophobia; anti-Semitism is becoming more intense.”
Progressive Canadians must not take their rights for granted, Lascaris stressed: “We cannot continue to rely upon the courts to do the job of defending our rights, because they’re vulnerable to the use of the Notwithstanding Clause. We have to get out into the streets and we have to oppose these laws and these measures and these policies, and we have to be relentless in doing that. And if we don’t, we’re going to lose our rights. That’s exactly where we’re heading.”
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. I want to ask you all a question. What can drive Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and secular progressives to unite and resist together? Well, the Quebec governing party, and my French is terrible, but the Coalition Avenir Quebec, known as CAQ, found a way by passing Bill 21 that bans public workers in positions that they hold— everyone from teachers to judges to police— from wearing any religious clothing or blatant symbols. It exempts present employees unless they are promoted or moved to a new job. Then, they’re also affected. It passed the Quebecois legislature 73 to 35. The outpour has been deafening in Quebec and across Canada as a whole, putting the once left province into a collision course with Trudeau himself, the Canadian government, and millions of other Canadians who just don’t abide by this, though many do. How did this happen? Who is this coalition? What political struggle does this set up, and how did they get there?
We are joined by Canadian Dimitri Lascaris, who is a board member here at The Real News and a correspondent for The Real News. He’s a lawyer practicing in Ontario and justice critic for the shadow cabinet of the Green Party-Quebec. Dimitri, welcome. Good to have you with us.
DIMITRI LASCARIS Always good to talk to you, Marc.
MARC STEINER So, as we begin this, this is a photo of the Canadian Supreme Court. And so, my question is, if you look at these people in the Canadians from court, if they can dress up like Santa Claus, why can’t everyone else wear what they want to wear? [laughs]
DIMITRI LASCARIS You know, it’s a funny question but it’s dead-on, Marc. This, you know, people wearing religious symbols is nothing more than an expression of their own personal beliefs. The fact that people who are occupying public office may want to wear a kippah, or a hijab, or a cross, or whatever it may be, whatever religion you may come from, does not mean that the state is forcing their particular religion down somebody’s throat. It’s only their own personal expression of faith in their religion. And, you know, before this law came into effect within the public service, you would see this great diversity of religious symbols.
It was very clear that the state wasn’t trying to force some particular religion down somebody’s throat. I’m all for the separation of church and religion, religion and state. Absolutely, 100 percent. I’m an atheist. But the idea that in order to maintain a division between religion and state, you need to prohibit people who work in the public sector and also people—This law goes so far as to deal with people who are receiving public services and women, primarily Muslim women who cover their faces. It precludes them from doing that as well in certain circumstances. You know, you don’t need to do that. You don’t need to introduce that kind of prohibition to maintain a separation of religion and state. This is all about targeting particular religions, and I have to say I think it’s primarily about targeting Islam, but not only Islam.
MARC STEINER Because it affects everybody. I mean, this is targeting Islam, but it affects the Sikhs, it affects Jews, it affects a number of other people as well.
DIMITRI LASCARIS And, you know, organizations across the political spectrum, the Jewish community in Canada are up in arms, and rightly so. You know, from the right and from the left. They’re completely up in arms and they have every right to be.
MARC STEINER So before I talk about what the resistance means and how this can change, if it does. I’m very curious. You’re an attorney, but there’s something that we talked a bit about before we went on camera. There’s something different about the Canadian Constitution and the American Constitution that lends this added punch in danger. What was that exactly?
DIMITRI LASCARIS So unlike the Bill of Rights in the United States— and I also have been for many years a lawyer in the United States in New York State, so I have some familiarity with the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the final word in the United States on whether a law can be a law affecting the civil liberties of Americans, can be upheld, and can be enforced. Unfortunately, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is what we call our version of the Bill of Rights, is not the final word. There is a clause in there that was put in at the insistence, I believe, of Quebec and perhaps other provinces at the time the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted.
MARC STEINER And when was that?
DIMITRI LASCARIS That was the early 1980s. We didn’t have anything like the Bill of Rights up until about then, not really. And so, it contains this clause, which has come to be known as the Notwithstanding Clause. This clause essentially allows a provincial government like that of Quebec to declare that notwithstanding that a law it has enacted violates the fundamental rights of Canadians, the law is nevertheless valid and enforceable. This is a clause because it is so controversial, it’s so explosive, that governments have been very, very wary of using it. In this particular case, the Quebec government decided it felt so strongly about individuals wearing religious symbols in the public service that they basically decided to exercise the nuclear option. They had put into this law a declaration that notwithstanding any violations of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms, it shall have effect.
MARC STEINER So does that mean that the resistance to this is impotent? They can’t do anything to stop it once this happened? Does that mean that the federal government can’t do anything in Canada? I mean, is it now a done deal? Is this it?
DIMITRI LASCARIS I think we can anticipate, nonetheless, that there are going to be a plethora of legal challenges to this and not necessarily under the Charter. I’m sure there will be Charter challenges, despite the use of the Notwithstanding Clause. We may see, you know, challenges under other forms of legislation, like human rights legislation. I can’t really predict how those legal challenges will fare without knowing the precise nature of the legal theory being advanced. And at the end of the day, they may all be doomed to failure because of the use of the Notwithstanding Clause. We’ll have to see, but I am quite confident that the public is not going to sit back and do nothing from a legal perspective just because the Notwithstanding Clause has been evoked.
MARC STEINER So that leads to a couple of questions. Let’s talk about, just for a moment, the government in Quebec itself. Premier Francois Legault—How would you say that right? Legault?
DIMITRI LASCARIS Legault.
MARC STEINER So, Francois Legault. He is part of this right-wing coalition that’s, kind of, taken over the Quebecois government that either used to be in Trudeau’s party or it was the Quebecois Party. So, they came into power. A—I’m very curious to know briefly how they came into power. And B—Who are they and what does this mean?
DIMITRI LASCARIS Well, Legault used to be, you know—Basically in this province, power has shifted back and forth between two parties. One party was the Liberal Party, which, you know, I would characterize it as a center-right party. Others would say it’s centrist. Some might even say it’s center-left, although I don’t think that’s accurate. And then there was the Parti Quebecois, which is a sovereigntist party. The Liberal Party was federalist; the PQ was sovereigntist. The PQ for a long time was quite progressive, especially when it was led by the separatist Rene Levesque who almost succeeded in getting Quebec out of Canada. It was probably the most left- wing party with any significant presence in a provincial legislature or in the federal government, but it began to shift to the right as attitudes within the separatist community in Quebec shifted to the right. Particularly, it began to embrace anti-immigrant policies. However, it didn’t go far enough, I think, in satisfying the right and this opened up a space for Francois Legault’s party, that has never held power in this province until the last election, to move in and sweep up a great number of seats.
I think there also was a considerable amount of discontent with the Liberal Party that had been in power up until that point in time and got displaced by this last election. Interestingly, when the final vote came down—One other important development is, I think it’s quite noteworthy, even though there was this rise of the right within the Quebec National Assembly in the last election, there was also an unusually strong showing by a left-wing party called Quebec Solidaire. I think it’s probably the most left-wing party. I feel confident in saying it is the most left-wing party to hold a seat anywhere in Canada. It actually, I think, won eleven seats. The Liberals and the Quebec Solidaire MNAs all voted against this legislation and harshly denounced it. Unsurprisingly, the formerly progressive Parti Quebecois joined with the CAQ to support the legislation. The final vote was something like 75 to 35.
MARC STEINER Right. Right. So the way your describing this, I mean, I’m curious, A— how the opposition is organizing itself and what that opposition means in Quebec and the rest of Canada. And B— it sounds as if in the way you describe the Constitution and what just happened in Quebec that unless there’s a shift in political power, they really can’t change this law. Am I right about that?
DIMITRI LASCARIS At the end of the day, that’s entirely possible. It may be that because of the use of the Notwithstanding Clause, there is no litigation solution to this. And it was interesting to hear Francois Legault talk about what is going to happen after the next election. He predicted— and he may be right about this, unfortunately— he predicted that if his party is displaced by power and, you know, the Liberals come back into office, that they would not be willing to abrogate this law. Regrettably, he could be right about that. It’s entirely—I think certainly, Quebec Solidaire is absolutely, fundamentally philosophically opposed to this law. I’m not so sure that the Liberals are quite as passionate in their opposition to this law as Quebec Solidaire.
MARC STEINER So what is this. You know, I made a little quip at the beginning about them dressed up like Santa Claus in the Supreme Court, but it’s not often that you see Muslims and Jews and others in this kind of coalition. What is the power of this opposition? Do they have power? What happens from here?
DIMITRI LASCARIS Well, certainly, within the city of Montreal, which is, I think, of the major cities in Quebec, it’s certainly the most diverse city. Here, there’s very strong opposition to this law and I, in fact, participated in a protest two days ago in downtown Montreal where you saw exactly that. You saw Muslims and Jews and Christians and atheists standing together holding their hands in the air, chanting that they were going to ensure one way or another, come hell or high water, this law’s demise. Within the city of Montreal, there’s going to be intense opposition to this and it’s going to be relentless. Beyond the city of Montreal, I think, you’re going to see much less muted opposition. Wide swaths of the Quebec population outside of Montreal will support this law, unfortunately.
MARC STEINER Why do you think that this law would have wide support throughout Canada, among other Canadians? I mean, how do you think the Canadian people respond to this law?
DIMITRI LASCARIS I honestly believe that a substantial majority of Canadians would be hotly opposed to this law. However, we have an electoral system, both provincially and federally, in this government which enables a party with somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the popular vote to obtain large majorities. And so, if we see, for example the conservatives, gain a majority government in the upcoming federal election, you know, it’s not inconceivable that they would propose some law along these lines. Although, I think that would be a much more difficult thing for them to sell federally than it is possible to do in a particular province. Where you’re more likely to see this is in a couple of provinces where really hard right-wing governments have recently come into power. They’re the two most populous provinces along with Quebec, namely Ontario, which is now ruled by Doug Ford— who by any rational measure is a far-right politician.
Then you have recently, the nominally social democratic party, the NDP, in Alberta got eviscerated by the conservative party. It’s actually called the United Conservative Party because it merged with an extreme right-wing party just before the Alberta election. They now hold a majority in Alberta. They’re led by a former Stephen Harper minister by the name of Jason Kenney. It’s entirely possible that you’ll see Jason Kenney and/or Doug Ford bring forward legislation of this nature in those two provinces.
MARC STEINER What you’re describing is fairly frightening. I mean, I’m curious as we conclude, before we went on the air, you mentioned— which we won’t talk about in-depth today— another law that was passed that threatens the rights of thousands of immigrants, which you can just describe briefly. How does this all fit into the larger context, the political dynamic of Canada? It seems as if in some ways this, kind of, right-wing populist movement that’s similar to the United States, in Hungary, Israel, across the world, India, could be taking hold in Canada as well.
DIMITRI LASCARIS Yeah, you know, Canada is proven itself by no means to be exempt from these larger geopolitical forces that we’re watching unfold. We are watching in this country the rise of populism, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, out-and-out Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism is becoming more intense. You know, it’s really, I’m embarrassed frankly as a Canadian to see what’s going on. I’m embarrassed to see people like Doug Ford and Jason Kenney being elected and Francois Legault getting away with enacting this law. I think really what we need as progressive Canadians is, we cannot continue to take our rights for granted. We cannot continue to rely upon the courts to do the job of defending our rights, because they’re vulnerable to the use of the Notwithstanding Clause, the courts. We have to get out into the streets, and we have to oppose these laws, these measures, and these policies, and we have to be relentless in doing that. And if we don’t, we’re going to lose our rights. That’s exactly where we’re heading in this country.
MARC STEINER That’s an important thing to have said. And as you said earlier, this is built around Islamophobia but what they’ve done affects a lot of people. Dimitri, this has been a great conversation. I appreciate the work you’ve done in keeping us abreast of all this. We will stay on top of this and want to hear more about the other laws being passed and what the situation is. Thanks so much for taking your time again today.
DIMITRI LASCARIS My pleasure. Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER And we’ve been talking to Dimitri Lascaris. I’m Marc Steiner here at The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.