QUEBEC, Que. — Hearings into Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 wrapped up Thursday in much the same way that they started, with opinions split down the middle and no real sign of a consensus.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s most controversial piece of legislation — which it says will not be amended in any major way despite critics — is destined to wind up in the courts.
“The legal fight will not end even with use of the notwithstanding clause,” said constitutional lawyer Perri Ravon, who on Thursday was acting for the group Coalition Inclusion Quebec, which presented a brief to the committee.
“We don’t know if we will win or not, but this is the irony of the thing. The government says it wants to avoid the judicial battle and turn the page, but nearly all the lawyers (working for groups opposed to the bill) are lining themselves up to challenge by using all kinds of arguments.”
The coalition, which is made up of people of all faiths and beliefs, was among the last to appear before t he committee, which sat for a total of six days.
With one delegate wearing a hijab, another the kippah and a third a turban, it made a strong pitch for the government to consider the human side of denying youth in many minority communities a chance to work for the government unless they remove their religious symbols.
Bill 21 proposes to bar workers in positions of authority in the public sector from wearing symbols. The ban would affect judges, police officers, prison guards, courtroom clerks, elementary and high school teachers plus school principals and vice-principals.
Taran Singh, a representative of the Sikh community who speaks four language and is married to a Jewish woman, honed in on the ban for police officers, inviting the committee to look at the way things work in other police forces, such as the RCMP, which have successfully integrated minorities and their symbols.
But that is not the case in Quebec, where they will be blocked, he said.
"What is really mind boggling for young Sikhs is that they see a Sikh man (Harjit Singh Sajjan) who is the national minister of defence, but they cannot aspire to become a police officer on the streets of Montreal.”
“What is really mind boggling for young Sikhs is that they see a Sikh man (Harjit Singh Sajjan) who is the national minister of defence, but they cannot aspire to become a police officer on the streets of Montreal,” Singh said.
Bouchra Chelbi, the first and only veiled teacher to get a chance to speak to the committee, said she knows teachers with 30 years of experience who are “depressed and feeling ostracized,” over the bill.
She took a swipe at the government’s attempt to soften the impact of the bill by including a clause recognizing acquired rights to symbols for existing workers.
“It’s like saying you didn’t commit a crime, but we’re giving you a break and saying we won’t put you in prison,” Chelbi said before the committee chairman issued a warning about inflammatory language.
The group highlighted a recent Léger poll it commissioned along with the Association of Canadian Studies, which shows that popular support for Bill 21 falls by about 20 per cent if people are told it could be a violation of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms.
Later, Sol Zanetti, the Québec solidaire MNA on the committee, said he found the testimony moving and said if all Quebecers had witnessed the consultation process, many in favour of the bill would change their mind.
“The fight is not over,” Zanetti said. “So there is hope.”
But the day was also marked by strong messages from two of the province’s more influential women’s groups. For days, the committee has heard that the Quebecers who will be most affected by the bill are women and especially Muslim women.
Gabrielle Bouchard, president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec , told the committee Bill 21 is “fundamentally sexist” and an “institutional passport to shunt Muslim women into a professional and social ghetto,” and must be scrapped.
"I have the intention of breaking this glass ceiling you are in the process of creating and which will narrow my options and stigmatize me.”
“I have the intention of breaking this glass ceiling you are in the process of creating and which will narrow my options and stigmatize me,” added federation delegate Idil Issa, a black Muslim woman.
Later, the Conseil du statut de la femme, the independent organization that advises the government, released the brief they would have presented had they been invited to appear.
The brief said while the council supports a limited ban on symbols for judges, police officers and prison guards), extending it to include teachers requires more study.
Emerging after the last witness was heard, Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, described the hearings as “constructive” and praised groups for the mature tone of the debate.
“There are many groups that said we are not going far enough and groups that said we are going too far,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters. “I think, yes, the bill has consensus support because it is moderate and we have demonstrated it.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019