Journalist and Human Rights Advocate



Quebec's Bill 21 shows why we fear the tyranny of the majority, the Ottawa Citizen

by Amira Elghawaby and Bernie M. Farber

As a Canadian Muslim and a Canadian Jew, we are both deeply concerned with the curtailments of religious freedoms in one of the nation’s largest provinces.

Late last month, Quebec passed legislation, Bill 21, that would limit the wearing of religious clothing by various public sector workers, including teachers, police officers, lawyers and judges. By passing the law despite protests and promises of civil disobedience, the government has demonstrated how we are all correct to fear the tyranny of the majority. It is exactly what our Charter of Rights and Freedoms was meant to protect against.

The Charter “stands as Canada’s ultimate expression of our commitment to freedom and human dignity,” opined Beverley McLachlin, former Supreme Court Chief Justice. “(It) provides all of us, regardless of race, religion, or gender, with a secure space in which to realize our aspirations.”

The Charter is among the reasons people immigrate to Canada; its promise of freedom and multiculturalism serves as a beacon for those “fleeing persecution, terror & war,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously tweeted in 2017. Just as the U.S. president was signing the first so-called “Muslim ban,” Canada’s federal government was distancing itself as far as it could from the politics of fear and division.

Just as the U.S. president was signing the first so-called “Muslim ban,” Canada’s federal government was distancing itself as far as it could from the politics of fear and division.

Canadian courts have consistently protected these fundamental human rights, even those that protect unpopular practices. These cases have included ones involving the wearing of the ceremonial Sikh dagger at school, or the right to construct temporary huts on condo balconies during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Ironically, Quebec’s Federal Court of Appeal itself ruled last fall that a judge had discriminated against a Muslim woman by asking her remove her headscarf to be heard.

Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported the ban. “It’s mainly driven by the hijabs, and the other religious symbols are collateral damage,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, in an interview with the Montreal Gazette.

The collateral damage includes the ban of the Sikh turban, the Jewish yarmulke, Christian crosses and other symbols. The law will be enforced by what some have called the “secularism police.”

Not only has this legislation dashed the hopes and dreams of thousands of Quebecers who only wanted to contribute to the social fabric of their province, it is also putting them in danger, according to numerous reports. This legislation inadvertently bolsters those who hate and entrenches second-class citizenship, now state-sanctioned.

Minority communities were already anxious about the stark rise in hate crimes across Canada, including in Quebec. The province holds the tragic distinction of being the home of the first lethal attack on a place of worship. Six men were gunned down at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, and many more were injured.

And yet, the province’s premier continues to deny the existence of Islamophobia, including the experiences of Quebec women who say they have felt increasing racism in the province over the past few months. Politicians who continue to pander to xenophobic tendencies must be called on the carpet.

We share a common humanity. Canada’s promise of peace, equity and social inclusion must not be compromised by those who permit ignorance to shape our society.

Every person in this country must be afforded the basic human rights and dignity they deserve. The safety and prosperity of all of our communities is at stake.

Amira Elghawaby and Bernie M. Farber are board members of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

Amira Elghawaby