Montreal mayor says secularism bill targets minorities and violates freedoms

Quebec's secularism bill is causing tension in society and Montrealers feel powerless to do anything about it, Mayor Valerie Plante told committee members studying the controversial legislation Tuesday.

Montreal's mayor was firm in her criticism of the bill, but she was also careful not to come off as confrontational. Plante acknowledged during her presentation that some Montrealers agree with the provincial government's plans to restrict people's religious freedoms.

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The Coalition Avenir Quebec government's Bill 21 would prohibit public sector workers in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Premier Francois Legault's government has also invoked a clause in the Constitution that would block people from challenging the law the over rights violations.

Plante told the legislature committee that the city supports the government's desire to enshrine into law the secular nature of the state. But she says Montreal has many problems with the government's approach.

The bill targets minorities, she said, and affects women more than it does men. Moreover, she added, Bill 21 doesn't include details about how it would be enforced.

"When it comes to fundamental rights or their place in society, citizens shouldn't have to live in fear regarding their faith," Plante told the committee.

She said the government should allow the bill to stand the test of the courts. "You need to let people feel that the legal processes are available to them," she said. "There is a certain feeling of powerlessness in the face of this bill."

Montreal city council voted unanimously in April to oppose the bill, and the mayor has received violent messages online over her public opposition.

But the mayor cannot afford to alienate the provincial government. Quebec City funds major infrastructure projects across the city, and Plante made sure to keep a collegial tone throughout her presentation.

She stressed that Montreal's diversity is its strength, and immigrants and minorities should be seen as a source of wealth rather than a cause for concern.

"In Montreal, our cultures, these minorities, they mix together daily," she said. "I don't want social cohesion to be at risk. And there is tension now. And we feel it."

Earlier on Tuesday, representatives from Quebec's English-language education sector told reporters Bill 21 is divisive, unnecessary and a violation of the Constitution.

Representatives of anglophone school boards and parent associations noted the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1990 that minority language communities have the "exclusive authority" to make decisions over aspects of language education, including the recruitment and assignment of teachers.

"Therefore ... Quebec cannot impose a prohibition of religious symbols worn by teachers and principals in the English public school network," they said in a statement to the media.

Also on Tuesday, sociologist Guy Rocher told the committee studying Bill 21 that the proposed law is not "anti-Islamic" as many opponents have claimed.

The only reason people think the bill targets Muslims is because the Islamic religion is currently the "most visible" in society, he said. In a few years, he explained, Jehovah's Witnesses or Christian Evangelicals could rise in prominence.

"The government has the responsibility to legislate in order to establish equality between all the religions," Rocher said.

— Written by Giuseppe Valiante

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