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Vigil against the CAQ’s law against Muslim women

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

December 5, 2019

On December 4, the ad-hoc collective that launched an ongoing campaign against Quebec’s so-called “secularism” law that bans the wearing of religious symbols for many professions including teachers, Law 21, held a simultaneous vigil in Montreal and Gatineau.

It was the second coordinated public event launched around a button campaign to show persistent opposition to the law. The button, with L21 crossed out, has been distributed in large numbers across Quebec: for wearing in streets, schools and workplaces. The campaign held a public action on October 6 that saw participation not only in Montreal and Gatineau but also in Quebec City, Sherbrooke, and in a number of smaller centres in Quebec.

December 4 and December 6

The vigil on December 4 aimed to maintain a public presence against Law 21 but also to highlight the connection between the violence done by this law to Muslim women today and the violence to women commemorated by December 6: the 1989 massacre of 14 women engineering students in Montreal. The organization Justice Femme, part of the collective in Montreal, organized a series of days leading up to December 6 to recognize the diversity of forms of violence against women and circulated a pamphlet about the rights of Muslim women today.

The vigil of December 4 also aimed to highlight that during the “holiday” season of December all religions deserve respect and inclusion as part of Quebec society. It welcomed people with lanterns lit with candles and hot chocolate.

Courts and streets

The fight against Law 21 is ongoing both through civil protest and in the courts. While the focus in the English Canadian media has been on the challenges under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and at the Canadian Supreme Court, the law also violates Quebec’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and some are pursuing it there.

A Quebec teachers union, the Federation autonome des enseignents (FAE, or Autonomous teachers’ fedeation) is asking the Superior Court of Quebec to declare several articles of the law unconstitutional, inapplicable or invalid, including those that require teachers but also other public servants such as police and judges, to remove religious symbols while at work – so pretty much the majority of this law.

The recent threat that the law might apply to interns seeking to become teachers met with uproar and threat of massive protest; soon after, in late November, the CAQ Minister of Education confirmed that education interns are not targeted by the law, because they are not employees, and therefore are not in a position of authority. He therefore declared that a school commission could easily bring in an intern wearing a religious symbol.

This of course makes no sense logistically or legally: an intern is on her way to qualify as a teacher, therefore to say she is exempt to this point while wearing a hijab means nothing – unless of course there is a legal stay or suspension of the law by the courts to make it ultimately possible to become a teacher without having to requalify.  Which the CAQ seems to be fighting.

Contradictions

The law was not intended to be legally consistent or logically applicable but to foster racism and to bolster a right-wing populist government not elected by a popular majority. It is subject to defeat, but the way it is defeated matters long term.

When there is serious opposition to the law, as what seemed to be brewing by the threat to internships, the CAQ government appears vulnerable. But it must be remembered that Quebec recently saw a huge political strike movement in the thousands by interns over unpaid labour; they represent not only a militant group but also a younger age group that is much more opposed to L21 than older ones in Quebec, so the threat was real.  

Law21 is full of holes, so is subject to interpretation and manipulation. The about-face of the Minister of Education’s declaration on interns indicates that the government’s room for manoeuvre on application of the law is vulnerable to popular opposition.

The holes in the law make it vulnerable to defeat in the courts as well. But if it is not defeated in real terms, for its impact on people’s lives and the division it is causing in communities, schools and workplaces, the legal victory will ultimately be hollow. 

This is why coordinated activities like the vigil that took place on December 4, as small as they were, are important to keep the flame alive.  

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