How to fight Quebec’s Secularism law (Bill 21)

Why is Bill 21 so bad?

The law bans people in various positions of authority in the Quebec civil service from wearing religious symbols. It applies to judges, prosecutors, teachers, prison guards, police officers, government inspectors and others. It is blatant discrimination against Jewish men who wear kippahs, Muslim women who wear hijabs, niqabs or burqas, and Sikhs who wear turbans. Defenders of the law say, these people can simply remove their head coverings when working but for most of them that amounts to choosing between their religious beliefs and employment in several areas.

Some have argued that Quebec has a French heritage and France has a similar law. That is not exactly true. France’s official government web site states:

“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs” states the Constitution of 1958.”

The web site goes on to explain:

 “In application of the secular principle, the law of 15 March 2004 prohibits all clothing or other attire displaying religious worship to be worn in schools.”

First, that is not the same as preventing various religious people from working in their profession (except for teachers). Second, the secular principle is in direct conflict with the religious freedom and equality principles. In cases where the law is unclear, it is up to the courts to rule. In fact, there was a case where three Muslim girls in middle school refused to remove their hijabs and the principal suspended them. The government sought a ruling from the Conseil d’État, the country’s highest administrative court. The court decided that expressing one’s religious convictions in school through clothing should be allowed if it does not constitute “an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism, or propaganda.” In short, it was the girls’ behavior, not their clothing, that should be judged.

No other European country has a secularism law and even in France, the highest court ruled that religious freedom trumps secularism.

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Quebec’s law is a clear violation of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 2 says, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, …”

Article 7 says, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”

Article 23 states, “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

Canada is a signatory of this declaration and Quebec, as a province, is equally bound.

The effect of Bill 21

In 2019 when Bill 21 was first proposed, I was at a press conference to denounce Bill 21 and I said, “ The result of Bill 21 will be ethnic cleansing, not with a gun but with a law.” That should be obvious. Those discriminated against will tend to leave the province and those considering coming from other countries will prefer to go where they and their children will have full equal rights to all types of employment. In other words, the population of Quebec will become less diverse with fewer ethnic minorities. That is ethnic cleansing, just not by killing. I chose my words for maximum impact because Bill 21 is odious and needed to be condemned in the strongest manner possible.

Obviously, my words touched a nerve with every self serving, pandering politician asking me to apologize including Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Legault, Mayor Valerie Plante, my MNA David Birnbaum and many others. I guess the truth hurts and the politicians preferred to attack the messenger rather than deal with the much more serious issue of the legislation itself.

I did not apologize and even though I had deliberately not mentioned the Holocaust in any of the numerous media interviews that I did, I heard from many Holocaust survivors and their children. They all had the same message for me. Don’t apologize. You told the truth. It was  laws like this that led to the Holocaust. I told the callers that I was well aware.

The first major law to curtail the rights of Jewish citizens was the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933, according to which Jewish and “politically unreliable” civil servants and employees were to be excluded from state service.  While this was worse than Bill 21 in that it covered all Jews even if they wore no religious symbols, it was less broad than Bill 21 which also covers Muslims and Sikhs. In total 400 laws and decrees followed the initial 1933 law. As soon as we accept one infringement, others will follow and as someone said, “It always starts with the Jews but it never ends there.

Ways to fight Bill 21

The courts

There is already a legal case against Bill 21 and at the lower court the judge ruled that the law was discriminatory and a violation of the Charters (both the Quebec and Canadian ones) but the Notwithstanding clause prevented him from overruling the law. The case is now before the Quebec Court of Appeal and should eventually reach the Supreme Court. Alternatively, The Federal government could refer the law to the Supreme Court immediately. I have heard arguments that there will be a better chance of winning if the Federal government waits until the appeal court rules which should be sometime this year.

Either way, I am not optimistic that the courts will rule against the use of the Notwithstanding clause. Perhaps they will say it can’t be used pre-emptively but even then, the Quebec government will simply pass the law again.

Constitutional change

Conventional wisdom is that any constitutional change is next to impossible. I disagree. See my article, Time for the Notwithstanding clause to go. In addition to the arguments in the article, there is another important point that needs to be explained to Canadians from coast to coast. Quebec has used the clause to discriminate against religious freedom and in Bill 96 against English language rights. Ontario has used it against unions and to attack municipal democracy. What fundamental rights will be attacked next? As long as the clause is in our Charter anything I possible. Here are some examples – all of which I hope will never happen:

A law preventing homosexuals or trans gendered from teaching because it sets a bad example for impressionable kids.

A law requiring the government, universities, and hospitals to hire more blacks/men/women/whatever because they are under represented and to do so regardless of qualifications.

A law imposing severe penalties on anyone refusing to use someone else’s preferred pronouns.

The Notwithstanding clause gives governments unchecked power and it has already led to abuses and there will be ever more if it is not removed from our Charter.

The power of disallowance

The Federal government can disallow any provincial law. I know it hasn’t been used in over 40 years but there has never been a law that violates the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provisions on religious freedom. That should be sufficient justification. It is serious enough to use the power of disallowance.

A challenge to the UN for a ruling

This was done once before with respect to language on signs. The UN ruled against Quebec. While this does not force Quebec to change the law, in the earlier case, the ruling embarrassed Quebec enough to change the law.

Political change

At the Federal level, the Liberals, Conservatives and I think NDP all say that Bill 21 is a bad law but they say it very quietly. Last week when Prime Minister Trudeau said that the government “MIGHT” ask the Supreme Court for a ruling, Legault went ballistic and called that weak statement a “frontal assault” on Quebec. In truth, it is Quebec that has assaulted Quebecers by taking away their rights. The opposition parties have been equally weak. We need politicians with the intelligence and fortitude of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

At the provincial level, the Liberals claim to be against Bill 21 but their platform supports it except for teachers. The Conservatives support Bill 21. Quebec Solidaire is the only major party that is against Bill 21 but they are for separation.

Those members of the major parties, Federal or Provincial, need to work to get their preferred party to really oppose Bill 21 and to support a constitutional amendment to remove the Notwithstanding clause.

As always, allow me to ask you to forward/share this article with those who might be interested and urge them to subscribe. My blog is free and will never have advertising but unless enough people get others to subscribe, it will be hard to get a critical mass. Hundreds of you are already on my mailing list but thousands would be much better.


  1. A very powerful blog post about Bill 21! It always starts with one law, and the rest follow. It is truly the boiling frog effect!

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Dr. Bill Steinberg

Dr. Steinberg has a BSc from McGill University, a PhD in Psychology from Northwestern University, and was a professor at Concordia University. He was Mayor of the Town of Hampstead for 16 years and led the demerger battle. He was was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and is currently President of the Cochlear Implant Recipients Association.

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