High-ranking human rights monitors with the United Nations are concerned the Quebec government will violate fundamental freedoms if it moves ahead with legislation to limit where religious symbols can be worn.
Three UN legal experts, known as rapporteurs, signed and sent a letter written in French last week to the Canadian mission in Geneva. They asked the diplomats to share the letter with Quebec's Legislature.
The letter says the province's so-called secularism bill, which the Coalition Avenir Québec government is rushing to pass by next month, threatens freedoms protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"We are particularly concerned … about consequences for those people susceptible to being disadvantaged or excluded from a job or public position because of the potential effects of the proposed law," the letter reads.
Tabled in March, Bill 21 will bar public teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work. It will also require government services to be received without religious garments covering the face.
The bill has already attracted widespread criticism from minority groups and anti-racism advocates in Quebec, who fear it will, among other things, significantly limit work opportunities for Muslim women.
The Quebec government maintains the legislation is moderate and represents the desires of a majority in the province.
But according to the UN observers, if passed, the bill could violate rights to freedom of conscience and religion, as well as a number of equality guarantees contained in the covenant.
The letter also notes the bill doesn't define what a religious symbol is, adding that it would be "extremely inappropriate" for a government to decide whether a symbol is religious or not.
Critics of the bill, including several teachers unions, highlighted this point repeatedly during the six days of legislative hearings that wrapped up last week.
It is unclear, for instance, whether the Star of David is a religious or political symbol.
The letter goes on to take issue with the requirement that government services be received with an uncovered face, a measure that singles out Muslim women who wear the niqab.
"The bill constitutes a restriction, or limitation, of the freedom to express religion or belief," the letter reads.
At multiple points, the letter reminds the Canadian government that it is bound by various human rights instruments, including the covenant on civil and political rights, which it signed in 1976. Quebec is also bound by these agreements.
The letter is signed by the rapporteur for minority relations, Fernand de Varennes; the rapporteur for racism, E. Tendayi Achiume; and the rapporteur for religious freedom, Ahmed Shaheed.
It closes with a series of questions about how minority rights will be protected once the legislation is passed. The rapporteur also wants to know how minority groups will be consulted in the legislative process.
Of the 36 groups and individuals who were invited by the Quebec government to take part in the legislative hearings for the bill, only two represented religious communities in the province.
Rules broken, lawyer says
Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human rights lawyer with extensive experience working with the UN, said it is noteworthy the letter was written in French.
"The United Nations is signalling … that majority will is constrained or bound by or limited by rules about how you treat minorities," she told CBC News after consulting the letter.
"And those rules have been broken in this case. They have manifestly been broken in this case."
Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill's sponsor, has received the letter and is "analyzing it in detail," a spokesperson for the minister said in a brief written statement Tuesday.
"The government of Quebec is proud of Bill 21," the statement said. "It is pragmatic, applicable and moderate. It reflects the consensus of the majority of Quebecers."
But Hélène David, the provincial Liberal critic for secularism issues, says the UN letter "underscores once again the attack on fundamental rights and the lack of justification for such a measure."
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez did not comment on the UN letter but said the federal government's position is clear: "It's not up to politicians to tell people what to wear or what not to wear. Canada is a secular and neutral state, and that is reflected in our institutions."
"The Quebec government's bill has raised numerous questions. We will continue to follow it very closely."
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized the bill (as have the federal NDP and Conservatives), he hasn't indicated whether the federal government will intervene if it is passed.
The letter itself carries no legal weight. But it could provide ammunition to groups who will seek to challenge the law before the UN's Human Rights Committee, Eliadis said.
Such challenges can take several years before the committee offers a decision (known as a "view"). When they are delivered, though, the federal government comes under considerable pressure to comply.
But beyond its possible legal ramifications, the UN letter indicates that what is at stake with Bill 21 is Quebec's reputation as a tolerant society, Eliadis said.
"I think the average person should care," she added.
"I think many people in Quebec do care because they understand that what the Quebec government is setting aside are our most fundamental values as a nation."