Calgary task force finds Quebec's Bill 21 has far-reaching impacts for religious minorities

·3 min read

A task force comprised of faith groups, think-tanks and community organizations in Calgary says Quebec's Bill 21 has impacted religious minorities across Canada since it came into law in 2019.

The secularism law bans religious symbols, like hijabs and turbans, prohibiting public teachers, lawyers, police officers and civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work, effectively preventing them from working in their chosen fields.

Lawyers for the government say it was needed to address unease about religious pluralism and the place of religion in society, but the Canadians it impacts say it violates the constitution and effectively makes them second-class citizens.

The I-Care task force study was funded by Think For Actions, Canadian Muslim Research Think Tank and Calgarians Against Racism, Violence and Hate at a cost of $21,000, gathering interviews and opinion from a wide range of residents from minority groups through focus groups.

Participants took part in several events held at churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. The study says they described the bill as hateful and one which targets minority religions. All participants agreed that Bill 21 does not reflect what Canada stands for.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

"It gives the feeling that we are becoming second-class citizens," said Dr. Mukarram Zaidi, chairman of the group Think For Actions, one of more than 50 groups involved in the study.

"This type of bill increases racism and discrimination by providing futile grounds to white nationalism, neo-nazis, and white supremacists," Zaidi said.

He says the findings of the study into the impact of the bill in Alberta were unanimous.

"It makes you valueless it makes your feel unwanted and it definitely affects us on a personal, psychological and emotional level," Zaidi added, quoting the words of one participant.

Zaidi says they discovered the law is also having a psychological impact with minorities feeling under attack and many reporting an impact on their mental health.

Findings from the focus groups included questions around defining religious symbols, concerns over Quebec residents having to leave their jobs and move away from their homes as a result of the bill and worries about the possibility of copycat bills in other provinces.

The report says many interviewees described discontent and fear for the future including one stating that they believe Bill 21 produces hatred.

City of Calgary Livestream
City of Calgary Livestream

Calgary city council voted unanimously in September 2019 to formally oppose Bill 21 but some who took part in focus groups said they were still concerned about the possibility of Alberta's provincial government adopting a similar law in the future.

"This could be a reality tomorrow in our province," said Zaidi, citing concerns about a changing political landscape and more far-right groups and activity in Alberta. "We definitely fear that and that's why we did this study in Calgary."

Zaidi says people come to Canada, in many cases, to escape oppression and enjoy freedom of religion and equal rights. He says Bill 21 takes that hope away from many immigrants along with the pride they have in their respective religions.

Right now Bill 21 is facing several legal challenges in Quebec, where hearings are still taking place.

A test of the constitutionality of the secularism law began earlier this month with tearful testimony from Muslim and Sikh teachers who said the law derailed their careers and made them targets of bigotry.

It's facing four different lawsuits that claim it violates the Constitution in a number of different ways.

Civil society groups have targeted the law as part of a broader struggle against systemic racism.

The court challenge was temporarily suspended last week after a person who had attended the proceedings tested positive for COVID-19.