“People can call police if secular dress code not adhered to, Quebec Public Security Minister says.” 

So reads a recent headline from The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s longest-standing national daily newspapers. Hints of a creeping police state can be detected in this narrative, though just what precisely is going on in Quebec with its latest legislation on “religious symbols”—Bill 21—remains unclear. A very brief history of recent attempts to ban religious symbols in Quebec, as well as in the rest of Canada (ROC), will be instructive here. 

There is much we cannot cover that would help to contextualize Quebec’s most recent “secular ban.” For example, there’s the founding/colonization of “New France,” “Lower Canada,” and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, all formative markers of Québécois identity. Likewise, the “Quiet Revolution” during the 1960s, which saw provincial services in Quebec (e.g., schools and hospitals) wrested away from the control of the Catholic Church, is a rather crucial chess piece, as was the corresponding shift in provincial identity that bore similarities to France’s style of laïcité. Then there’s the creation of the Parti Québécois in 1968, its desire for sovereignty, its social democratic leanings, and its moves toward separation from the ROC, all culminating in a national referendum on official separation in 1995, which lost by a hair’s breadth (50.58% voted NO[N]). Alas, there’s no time for a primer on the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, or the 1992 Charlottetown Accord—both failed attempts by the federal government to make accommodations to Quebec under the revised Canadian Charter of 1982. These post-1968 battles have often been framed as attempts to maintain a “distinct society” (e.g., through language laws, education, and immigration policy), which places a premium on the maintenance of not only language and “culture,” but “Quebec values” too (see Charles Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition”). 

Ok, this should be enough to get the saveur in your mouth—sovereignty issues, France-style laïcité, threats of divorce from the ROC, and the ever-looming anxiety that Quebec’s “distinct society” will be swept away by the Anglo behemoth that surrounds it on all sides (including the virtual geography of the internet). 

During the 1990s, Quebec welcomed migrants from French-speaking countries like Algeria and Morocco, which transformed the province’s demographics toward a more multicultural dynamic. These demographic shifts help to explain the widely-publicized Hérouxville Code in 2007 (a small town of around 1300), which made international headlines for passing into law a “values test” that all newcomers must adhere to (earlier versions of the code included the provisions, “no stoning women in public” and “no female circumcision”). The publicity that followed contributed to then-premier Jean Charest launching the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (that would be Charles Taylor the philosopher, not the war criminal) on the question of what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of cultural/religious practices within Quebec. A series of important events followed in the lead-up to Bill 21: 

  • Bill 94 (March 2010): the Quebec Liberal Party proposed that women must unveil their faces (i.e., niqabs) if they want to work in the public sector or to receive public services. The bill failed to pass. 
  • Bill 60 (September 2013): the Parti Québécois (PQ) proposed the Charter of Secular Values, which extended the previous ban to all “conspicuous religious symbols” (see image here). This provoked outrage across Canada and led not only to the bill’s defeat, but it contributed to the PQ’s downfall in 2014. (See my commentary here.)
  • Bill 62 (October 2017): the Quebec Liberal Party passed a law reminiscent of Bill 94, banning niqab-wearers from receiving public services, including public transport, which provoked considerable protest. The bill was suspended as a possible violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (i.e., federal and not provincial jurisdiction), and remained in limbo until the Liberals were defeated in October 2018.
  • Bill 21 (March 28, 2019): the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) passed Bill 21, titled, “An act respecting the laicity of the state,” which returns to the broader ban on all religious symbols for public employees, while doubling down on face veil bans for accessing public services, including public transport. CAQ leader François Legault said he would use the Notwithstanding Clause if necessary, which allows provincial governments to override the (federal) Canadian Charter

One more thread. 

In January 2015, Zunera Ishaq of Mississauga Ontario, a then-permanent resident from Pakistan, challenged a little-known federal Conservative policy from 2011 that banned the wearing of the niqab during swearing-in ceremonies for Canadian citizenship (see my commentary here). Then-prime minister Stephen Harper declared the niqab “anti-women” and “contrary to Canadian values.” Later that June, his government also passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which led many, including Justin Trudeau, to claim he was playing on anti-Muslim sentiment as a wedge issue in the 2015 federal election. While a majority of Canadians supported the ban, Trudeau’s electoral victory quietly removed the controversy from public discussion. Ishaq was later sworn in while wearing her niqab. 

During the 2015 niqab affair, all national parties, except for the Conservatives, were opposed to the ban, stating that it violated the Canadian values of “religious freedom” and "freedom of expression." In the case of Bill 60 in Quebec, all national parties, including the Conservatives, opposed the ban. The same goes for Legault’s Bill 21. Quebec stands alone. 

I’ve previously written on Bill 60 and how these controversies are tied to questions of Quebec’s sovereignty. This makes for a rather thin tightrope that federal leaders have to walk if they don’t want to step in the merde and lose too many of the precious 78 seats (out of 338) that Quebec holds in the federal parliament (see my commentary again). I could go on, but I’m sure by now you get the picture. It’s a sticky pickle, deep-fried in maple syrup. 

Religion scholars who have commented on Quebec’s secular politics have zeroed-in on the ways in which it has targeted Muslim women in particular, and, despite attempts to appear more neutral by banning all “religious symbols” (as with Bill 60 and now with Bill 21), successive governments came under fire for maintaining a large cross in the Quebec National Assembly, justifying it is a “cultural” and not a “religious” symbol. As Gabrielle Desmaris observes, Bill 60 was an exemplary instance of a state constructing the boundaries between what is religious and what is cultural (and therefore secular) based on its own idiosyncratic self-understanding. 

Mayanthi Fernando and Jennifer Selby take their analysis in a different direction (see also Selby 2014), drawing on theories from Charles Hirshkind, Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, and Joan Wallach Scott (among others) in order to explore the ways in which secular ideology constructs women’s bodies through particular modes of regulation or “governmentality” (e.g., see this viral image of the burkini ban in France). To put it differently, they explore how secular ideologies naturalize a particular ideal of women’s bodies in opposition to “Muslim” forms of dress. 

At least two things are unique with this latest bill in Quebec. First, it combines what I (playfully) term a “thinly-veiled Muslim ban” with a general ban on religious symbols, including, crucially, agreeing to remove the large crucifix from behind the speaker’s chair in the Quebec National Assembly (though at first they resisted). How this will play out is anyone’s guess, though it certainly pushes the narrative on “religious” versus “cultural” (or “historical”) symbols in a new direction

Second, while the rhetoric of maintaining state neutrality and promoting equality between men and women (i.e., the veil ban) is still present, Bill 21 emerges in a political environment that has seen both the rise of minority voices (e.g., through social media and through the growing appeal of the leftist Quebec Solidaire Party, which rejected the bill), as well as a backlash against “multiculturalism” and in favor of “Western values” (CAQ is a right-wing party, and has frequently been accused of xenophobia and Islamophobia). Also in the mix is the newly-formed (federal) People’s Party of Canada, whose (Québécois) leader Maxime Bernier made headlines last summer for stating that he would work to tackle “extreme multiculturalism” if elected to parliament. When we add to this the volatile presence of radio shock jocks in Quebec (a.k.a., “trash radio” or radio poubelle), and the response to the 2017 mosque massacre in Quebec City, where 6 people were murdered, the stakes are considerably raised. With Bill 21 the new government does not have a leftist veneer, despite capitulating to the “progressive” demand to remove the crucifix from some (plot twist!) government buildings. 

Future analysis of these contests over religion and the secular in Quebec would do well to pay attention to how the coordinates of “secularism” have shifted over the last decade or so from an emphasis on sovereignty and equality for women, toward more overt forms of Western identity politics, despite attempts to wrap this fromage in the same old cloths. 

Author, Matt Sheedy, is Visiting Professor in the North American Studies Department at the University of Bonn, Germany, and a lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and religion, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, atheism, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. He is currently completing a book that offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

Edited by Joel Brown