Bill 21 lacks support from the majority

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

Québec’s Bill 21, enforcing laicity, (i.e., restrictions on the display of religious symbols) raises a number of issues beyond religious rights and it requires amendments to Québec’s Charter of human rights and freedoms. The significant issue here is that a charter, to be meaningful, must be the primary document in defining laws affecting human rights; modification must be done only with careful review and consultation with all affected parties.
Bill 21 “amends the Charter of human rights and freedoms to specify that
persons must maintain proper regard for State laicity in exercising their fundamental freedoms and rights”. How did Bill 21 become law? Although it passed with a majority vote in the Québec National Assembly, there is an issue of legitimacy that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Québec assembly is made up of 125 elected members; 74 (59.2%) are members of the current CAQ government. However, in the election where the CAQ was given a majority government, only 37.4% of votes cast were for the party. Further, 33.6% of potential voters didn’t bother to mark a ballot. Thus, it’s difficult
to maintain that the CAQ represents the majority of Quebecers. To further
complicate the matter, the CAQ used closure (a procedural device used to bring debate on a question to conclusion when there’s a majority vote) to limit debate on Bill 21.
Some may maintain that polls indicate wide acceptance of laicity (incorrectly referred to as secularization) by the Québec public. But a quick review of Québec
history will help point to some problems with the entire endeavour of the Québec government to enforce laicity.
In 1937, the government of Maurice Duplessis passed an act to protect Québec against Communist propaganda (the Padlock Law). This act was widely supported in Québec as a protection against the “Red Menace”, but the law didn’t define “communist” and Quebecers discovered it could be used against trade unions and newspapers that didn’t meet Duplessis’ idea of ‘good’ Quebecers. The Padlock Law denied the presumption of innocence and denied the right of freedom of speech. 
Many, including the Government of Québec, will deny that Bill 21 is anything like the Padlock law of 1937, but there are similarities. The Padlock Law didn’t define “communist” and Bill 21 doesn’t define “religious symbol”.  Both bills claim support of the majority of Quebecers. Maurice Duplessis’ government maintained that its law did not violate any federal law because it dealt with property law which is strictly under provincial jurisdiction. François Legault’s CAQ government says it will use the “notwithstanding” clause to circumvent any federal ruling. In both cases,
there’s a deliberate attempt to limit the application of the Supreme Court’s legal jurisdiction.
The history of past governments teaches us that we must be vigilant
in guarding our essential rights in a free and democratic society. Bill 21 has shown that the Québec charter of human rights and freedoms can be easily
modified by the government even when that government was not elected by the
majority of Quebecers. 
What is at stake with Bill 21 goes beyond laicity and brings into question how
real the protections and guarantees of basic rights are in Québec.