In December, the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB) removed a Grade 3 teacher from a Chelsea classroom for wearing a hijab – a garment deemed to contravene Quebec’s Bill 21 that bans government and public employees from wearing “religious symbols” while working. But what is a “religious symbol?”
According to Bill 21, it’s any object that’s (1) worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation. In essence, this implies someone must determine if a specific item is a religious symbol or not. “It’s incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority to take measures to ensure compliance,” says the Bill.
The Quebec flag, called the Fleurdelisé, consists of a white cross on a blue background with four white fleurs-de-lis. The cross is a Christian symbol, and the white lily is a Roman Catholic symbol
for the Virgin Mary. Isn’t the Quebec flag clearly a religious symbol? Therefore, in following Bill 21, it cannot be displayed on the clothing or body by any person at any official Quebec building or function. This includes
clothing, pins, tattoos and instruments such as pens, keyboards, etc.
There’s a need to differentiate between religious and spiritual symbols, but how is that distinction made? An eagle’s feather may be a spiritual symbol for one person and a necessity in a religious rite for another. What about some of the practices and apparel of our First Nations people? Or the sari, worn by many women from India; is it a symbol of the Hindu religion or an indication of a specific cultural practice? Any attempt
to distinguish a religious symbol from a cultural practice can only be made by the person displaying the item, not by some bureaucratic fiat.
One case in point. I once met a lady who wore a small cross on a necklace. She wasn’t especially religious, and someone asked her about the necklace. She didn’t consider it a religious symbol. It was a piece of jewelry she inherited from her grandmother. For her, it was an heirloom, not an object indicating her religious beliefs. And yet, according to Bill 21, she couldn’t wear it if she were an employee of the Quebec government or public institution.
The Legault government believes flags and certain other symbols have cultural rather than religion significance. Couldn’t the same argument be used for the hijab, yamaka, kirpan and shamrock, which the Quebec government insists are purely religious symbols? How does any authority decide on the difference?
In Canada, we should respect the vitality that diversity brings to our community. Perhaps the real issue is that there is no way to distinguish between a religious symbol, a spiritual symbol, a cultural symbol, or an heirloom. In reality, what the Quebec government seems to want is a legal means of discriminating against certain minorities.