Muzzle criticism? As a democracy, Quebec must do better!

As civil society organizations challenged by the project of an inclusive society respectful of the dignity of all, we cannot remain indifferent to the attempt of a minister to muzzle critical voices of a discriminatory law .

Bill No. 52 (PL 52), adopted on May 2, 2024, extends the exemption from the rights and freedoms protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, within the framework of the Law on State Secularism (often called law 21). This same law which aroused strong and numerous criticism in 2019, before the government decided to impose a gag order to adopt it, thus cutting short the debates.

Several organizations have been opposed to Bill 21 since 2019 because of its discriminatory effects on certain groups of people, particularly racialized people and women, and because it represents a threat to several other rights such as freedom of religion and the right at work. Remember that the Commission on Human Rights and Youth Rights (CDPDJ), an independent body whose mandate is to make recommendations to the Government of Quebec on the conformity of laws with the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, warned that Bill 21 would have such consequences.

Last Tuesday, April 9, during consultations on PL 52, the minister responsible for secularism, Jean-François Roberge, said he was “struck, offended” when an organization dedicated for more than sixty years to the protection of human rights criticized the State Secularism Law, calling it racist, sexist and discriminatory. He called these criticisms unacceptable insults and refused to continue the dialogue. The next day, Roberge proposed a motion calling for “the National Assembly to refute and condemn any accusation that Bill 21 is racist, sexist or discriminatory.” Even though there was no consent to debate the motion, the seriousness of the gesture remains.

What must be denounced is that the government is making this attempt to muzzle criticism. Citizens and organizations must be able to voice their criticisms loud and clear, and publicly denounce laws that they consider discriminatory, racist or sexist, and therefore incompatible with the Charter of human rights and freedoms. A democracy cannot tolerate a government hiding behind the principle of parliamentary sovereignty to trample rights, while refusing to hear the groups and citizens who participate in the debate.

All Quebecers should be concerned about a government that derogates from human rights protected by the Canadian and Quebec Charters so casually. A government whose most important role is to protect rights and freedoms, but which no longer deigns to listen to criticism, including rigorous, human rights-based criticism. A government which already refused to take into account the analyzes proposed by the notion of systemic racism, but which would not even like to hear them!

Minister Roberge therefore proposed to the National Assembly to refute and condemn the criticisms of Bill 21, but he has not tabled any report on the impact of the law over the last five years, and has not invited any organization representing affected groups to present their views to the Parliamentary Commission. The renewal of the use of the derogation clause within the framework of Law 21, obligatory every five years, should have been an opportunity to hear the main people affected by the Law and several organizations representing them and having submitted detailed briefs in 2019.

The League of Rights and Freedoms reported in its memoir the anonymized testimonies of women teachers wearing the veil. These women suffered marginalization, rejection and discrimination, both through the application of the Law and through the social climate it fueled. Nadia insists: “with students, my teaching is neutral. I’m not here to convert them. I am not dangerous for the students, Mr. Legault.” Nour denounces the gender discrimination in access to employment that she suffered due to the Law on State Secularism: “for the first time in my life, I am experiencing such blatant male-female discrimination which directly affects me, and in Canada, the country of freedoms and equality! “. Emina says: “You feel like you have to fade into your identity to be accepted, and even with the grandfather clause you feel like a burden that we have to tolerate. While the education system is seriously lacking teachers.”

We invite elected officials as well as the public to become aware of the real impacts of Bill 21 reported in these testimonies. It is essential to take into account the experience of people who are restricted in the exercise of their rights. It is essential to consult groups that are critical of a law, especially when it derogates from rights and attacks the legal instruments constituting the basis of our rule of law.

As a democracy, Quebec must do better.

*Co-signed this text: Samaa Elibyari, co-president, Canadian Council of Muslim Women — Montreal chapter; Sara Arsenault, responsible for political files, Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ); Sylvain Lafrenière, coordinator, Grouping of organizations in collective defense of rights (RODCD); Stéphanie Vallée, president, Table of provincial groupings of community and voluntary organizations (TRPOCB); Mélina Chasles, president, League of Rights and Freedoms — Quebec section; Pam Hrick, Executive Director and General Counsel, Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

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