New research shows that three years after Quebec's secularism law — commonly known as Bill 21 — was adopted, religious minorities in the province are feeling increasingly alienated and hopeless.
"Religious minority communities are encountering — at levels that are disturbing — a reflection of disdain, hate, mistrust and aggression," Miriam Taylor, lead researcher and the director of publications and partnerships at the Association for Canadian Studies, told CBC in an interview.
"We even saw threats and physical violence," Taylor said.
Bill 21, which passed in 2019, bars public school teachers, police officers, judges and government lawyers, among other civil servants in positions of authority, from wearing religious symbols — such as hijabs, crucifixes or turbans — while at work.
Taylor and her colleagues at the association worked with polling firm Leger to gather a unique portrait of attitudes toward Bill 21 in Quebec.
The association surveyed members of certain religious minority communities including 632 Muslims, 165 Jews and 56 Sikhs.
Those results were folded into a Leger survey of the Quebec population as whole, and then weighted to ensure the sample was representative of the entire population.
That allowed Taylor to compare and contrast the attitudes toward Bill 21 of Quebecers who are religious minorities with the attitudes of Quebecers as a whole.
In total 1,828 people were questioned in the online survey.
Taylor shared an advance copy of her final report, which is being released today, with CBC.
Muslim women most affected
Although all three religious minority groups surveyed said they've experienced negative impacts due to Bill 21, the effects are being most acutely felt by Muslims and, in particular, Muslim women.
"We saw severe social stigmatization of Muslim women, marginalization of Muslim women and very disturbing declines in their sense of well-being, their ability to fulfil their aspirations, sense of safety, but also hope for the future," Taylor said.
Of the Muslim women surveyed, 78 per cent said their feeling of being accepted as a full-fledged member of Quebec society had worsened over the last three years.
Fifty-three per cent said they'd heard prejudicial remarks about Muslims from family, friends or colleagues.
People surveyed were given the opportunity to share examples of comments they'd heard or behaviours they'd experienced.
One reported hearing: ''These Muslim women with rags on their heads, if they are not able to integrate, let them return to their country.''
Forty-seven per cent of Muslim women said they'd been treated unfairly by a person in a position of authority.
One person reported being called a "dirty immigrant" by a police officer in Quebec City. Another reported that a teacher told disparaging anecdotes about Islam in class.
Two thirds of Muslim women said they'd been a victim of and/or a witness to a hate crime. Seventy-three per cent said their feeling of being safe in public had worsened.
People surveyed offered examples ranging from racist remarks to death threats, having hijabs ripped off and being spat on. One person reported that a man deliberately tried to run over them and their three-year-old daughter with a pickup truck.
A majority of Muslims also reported feeling less hopeful, less free to express themselves in public and less likely to participate in social and political life.
"For a law that's supposed to be very moderate and only touch a very small number of people, we were shocked at the responses," Taylor said.
She said the response she found most upsetting was that 83 per cent of Muslim women surveyed said their confidence in their children's future had worsened since Bill 21 passed.
"It's one thing to say: 'you know what, I'm experiencing a lot of unfair treatment because I'm not understood,'" Taylor said. "It's another thing to project forward and have no hope for your children."
Law reinforces existing prejudices
Taylor believes Bill 21 alone isn't responsible for the feelings of alienation and insecurity Quebec Muslims and other religious minorities feel.
She said prejudicial attitudes have been gestating in Quebec for nearly 20 years, when the debate over so-called "reasonable accommodations" for religious minorities first took hold.
"Malaise, fear and anxieties get provoked over time," Taylor said.
She said often those anxieties are based on ignorance.
"By their own admission, Quebecers in general have very little contact with members of religious minorities," Taylor said. "All of these negative opinions are based on lack of knowledge."
Taylor said Bill 21 has enabled those prejudices — rooted in ignorance — to become the norm.
"We end up with a situation where the malaise of the observer trumps the deep convictions of the person actually wearing the religious symbols," Taylor said.
"We're validating and reinforcing those opinions, and then we're politicizing the symbols. Those symbols are lightning rods," she said.
"And so we end up dehumanizing the people wearing the symbols," Taylor said.
Women generally less supportive of Bill 21
Taylor said that Bill 21 has consistently maintained the support of about two thirds of Quebecers since it was adopted, with a dip last January after the high-profile case of a hijab-wearing teacher in Chelsea who was removed from the classroom and reassigned.
But she said that support is nuanced and full of contradictions.
Women in Quebec, for example, are generally less supportive of Bill 21 than men. Sixty-eight per cent of men support the law compared to 58 per cent of women.
And the younger women are, the less likely they are to support the law. Just 31 per cent of women aged 18-24 support Bill 21.
Taylor said that raised questions for her.
"It's touted as a feminist law by the people who support it. So why is it that particularly the younger women of Quebec are so much less in favour of it when one would expect the reverse proportion?" she said.
Support for the law but not for enforcement
Another statistic that surprised Taylor: even Quebecers who support the law don't necessarily want to see it enforced.
Only 40 per cent of people surveyed believe a public servant who does not comply with the law should lose their job.
"The law is supported and liked by Quebecers. But they seem much less keen to see it actually applied," Taylor said.
"I think that we're a human society and we care about people. We all need income to survive and I think people are aware of what a heavy price that would be to pay," she said.
Quebecers care about what courts say about Bill 21
Taylor was also surprised that the survey showed that Quebecers care deeply about what courts have to say about Bill 21.
When drafting the law, the Quebec government, recognizing that it would likely violate both the Canadian and the Quebec charters of rights, pre-emptively invoked the constitutional notwithstanding clause, and altered the Quebec charter to try to shut down court challenges.
But those challenges came anyway, and now both the government and groups that oppose the bill are challenging a 2021 Quebec Superior Court ruling that upheld most of the law before the Quebec Court of Appeal.
It's widely expected the law will eventually be challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada.
The bill's architect, Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, has argued that it's up to elected politicians in the National Assembly — and not the courts — to decide how they want to organize relations between the state and religion.
But Quebecers seem to feel differently.
Sixty-four per cent, roughly the same percentage that support the bill, also feel it's important for the Supreme Court to issue an opinion on whether Bill 21 is discriminatory.
And if the courts were to confirm the law is discriminatory, support for the bill would plummet.
Only 46 per cent of people surveyed — less than half — said they would continue to support the law if the courts confirmed it violates the Charter of Rights.
'A very reasonable bill': premier
Premier François Legault was questioned Wednesday about the survey results and said he thinks Bill 21 is a "very reasonable bill."
"It forbid wearing religious signs only for people being in an authority position: teachers, police, guardian of prison and judges. That's it, that's all. So it means that Muslim — or any people having any religion — they can do what they want on the street, they can do what they want at home," Legault said.
Legault said minorities should see Quebec as a welcoming place that "decided, for all kind of reasons, that secularism is important."
WATCH | Premier François Legault defends Bill 21:
Debate not over
Jolin-Barrette has portrayed Quebecers as united in support of the bill, and has accused detractors of trying to divide Quebecers.
But Taylor's survey shows that a majority of Quebecers — 56 per cent — believe the law itself is divisive.
When Bill 21 was adopted, Jolin-Barrette said it would "permit a harmonious transition toward secularism" for Quebec.
Taylor said that clearly hasn't been the case.
"The debate is very far from closed," she said. "Bill 21 is having devastating impacts on citizens in our province. It's tearing apart our social fabric and I think it's undermining our democracy."
"If national unity is achieved at the expense of labelling minorities as in some way harmful or a threat, these are signs of the degeneration of democracy," she said.
Taylor said as a Quebecer, she finds this distressing.
"We live in a very distinct province. We're different. It's an experiment that on some level should never have succeeded: a thriving French society on an English continent," she said.
"In all my years, I associate that distinct nature with a humanity, with understanding how important identity is," Taylor said.
She said Bill 21 threatens that.
"I feel like we're doing major harm to those values that we hold dear and that make us special," Taylor said.