Source: Valentina Garcia

Bill 21 has claimed its first victim. Fatemeh Anvari, an elementary school teacher in the municipality of Chelsea, Outaouais, lost her teaching position because she wears a hijab. In this way, the law has done exactly what it was intended to do by discriminating against someone based on their religion.

No one can deny the discriminatory nature of the state secularism law, which prohibits persons in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols. François Legault even candidly admitted that Anvari should not have been hired. In other words, that she should have been discriminated against in the hiring process. Ms. Anvari was not accused of any lack of professionalism or religious proselytizing. Contrary to the claims of its nationalist identitarian defenders, this has nothing to do with secularism, and everything to do with racism.

Real racism

As a reminder, Bill 21 was passed in 2019 after nearly two decades of a racist media offensive against Muslims, triggered by the 9/11 attacks and the waves of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East caused by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. Across the West, right-wing commentators have made a hysterical fuss about the so-called “danger” of Islam and spewed their hatred against immigrants, especially Arab immigrants.

This Islamophobic and anti-immigrant atmosphere that has prevailed for several years has led to an increase in hate crimes, in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. The politicians and media personalities who opportunistically promoted this racist atmosphere have reaped what they have sown with the terrorist attack on the Quebec City mosque, which left six dead and 19 injured. Contrary to what Islamophobic commentators would have us believe, it is racists who pose the greatest terrorist threat, according to the Canadian secret service itself.

In Quebec, this racist offensive has given itself a progressive air by claiming to be the legacy of the Quiet Revolution and its struggle for secularism against the Catholic church. It took the form of a so-called “debate” on religious symbols in public spaces and among government employees—a debate that always ended up focusing on the Muslim veil. 

Without the slightest evidence of a lack of secularism on the part of the state or of a link between the veil and religious proselytizing in nearly 20 years, Quebec’s political class has attempted to “fix” this fabricated problem. First with the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, then with the Quebec Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québécois, followed by Bill 62 under Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government, and finally with Bill 21 under the CAQ.

Islamophobia was particularly useful and found fertile ground in the context of the generalized crisis of capitalist society that followed the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Politicians, unable to offer anything but austerity and a decline in living conditions to workers, the poor and youth, had to find a scapegoat. The Muslim woman was the perfect candidate. 

The “debate” over religious symbols has allowed many politicians and commentators to make a career out of bashing Muslims and immigrants. It has also allowed the governing parties to distract working people from the decline in their living conditions. François Legault in particular has mastered the art of making people forget his countless blunders and attacks on the working class and rallying the “nation” behind him in the defense of “our” secularism.

False secularism

Faced with the outcry last week over the exclusion of Ms. Anvari, the usual cabal of identity nationalists from Quebecor and around the PQ and CAQ came to the defence of the law. As usual, their argument is based on the need to defend the “secularity” of the state and the “neutrality” of the school. 

Frédéric Bastien, a former Parti Québécois leadership candidate, asserts in the Journal de Montréal that “secularism” (read: Bill 21) protects the “neutrality” of education. Immediately contradicting himself, he admits that he does not want schools to be truly neutral: “In school, we educate ourselves, we learn the common language, we assimilate the history and values of the nation.” There is no doubt that this identity nationalist wants the school to teach his values. 

The current leader of the PQ, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, also said he was in favour of removing the teacher. This is the same Plamondon who had promised to put a flag in every classroom. Obviously, if he has a problem with religious proselytizing in schools, he does not have a problem with nationalist proselytizing either.

For Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the exclusion of this teacher because of her hijab is explained by the fact that “Quebec has chosen to have a secular state.” 

In reality, Quebec is no more secular since the adoption of Bill 21. As we have already said, there was no evidence of any problem of lack of religious neutrality in state institutions due to religious symbols worn by employees. 

On the other hand, the last remnants of religious privileges that actually remain, including subsidies to private denominational schools, are still in place. But since these schools are largely Catholic, the CAQ and its supporters do not pay much attention to them. The double standard of Catholics like François Legault was evident when he and his party wanted to keep the crucifix in the National Assembly. This same François Legault had declared, during a visit to California, that “all French Canadians are Catholic”.

Nor did Bill 21 put an end to another real case of religious privilege, namely the tax exemptions granted to religious organizations. The city of Montreal is deprived of $110 million a year in property taxes because of the privileges granted to religious organizations. 

All this shows that Bill 21 has nothing to do with secularism, and that the commentators and politicians who defend this law in the name of “secularism” are being totally hypocritical. 

Soft opposition

Not surprisingly, the news of Ms. Anvari’s removal sparked an outcry in English Canada… and a few uncomfortable grumbles of disapproval from Quebec politicians. 

Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals have denounced Bill 21. This is pure hypocrisy, coming from the party responsible for committing Canada to the war in Afghanistan and voting for the bombing of Libya. The provincial Liberals, who have also made their disapproval known, have nothing to teach us either. It was they who in the previous government of Philippe Couillard passed their own racist law targeting veiled women, Bill 62. Many Conservative MPs across English Canada have also denounced Bill 21, which is absolutely laughable coming from a party of old racists.

Unfortunately, the response from the left to the decision to exclude Ms. Anvari has been very weak.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh continues to focus on a courtroom solution, which is pretty much the same position as Justin Trudeau. This kind of solution, in addition to having little chance of success, can only strengthen the position of identity nationalists by contributing to the image of a united Quebec nation against English Canada and its institutions that would try to prevent us from being secular.

Québec solidaire, after being slow to react, finally criticized the decision. Unfortunately, their denunciation was equivocal. Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois were rather soft and said they were “sad”, with Massé denouncing not the racist discriminatory nature of the law… but the fact that it worsens the teacher shortage. As if we were one teacher short! Finally, after four days, Deputy Andrés Fontecilla published a fair critique, clearly denouncing the discriminatory and falsely secular character of the law.

This kind of equivocal attitude in opposition to Bill 21 is typical of the Québec solidaire leadership on the issue of religious symbols, particularly in recent years. It should be recalled that the party’s rank and file in 2019 had to revolt against the leadership to force it to stop taking a compromise position on the issue of religious symbols and to take a stand against any discriminatory measures in the name of “secularism”. Rank-and-file members had mobilized extensively to denounce the racism of policies like Bill 21. Despite this, QS MPs have continued to equivocate.

Similarly, the unions, with the exception of a few teachers’ unions, have been largely silent on the issue of Bill 21.

There is no doubt that this timidity stems from the fear of being unpopular. Polls show that Bill 21 has majority support in Quebec. Identity nationalists are using this strong support to claim that it is a “consensus”. But the fact that the left has accepted the “debate” on religious symbols and refuses to criticize Bill 21 head-on is precisely what reinforces its popularity in the polls and gives the impression of a consensus. It is because a large part of the left refuses to clearly denounce the law that the CAQ is able to claim to have the entire “nation” behind it. Moreover, the right knows that the left is uncomfortable criticizing the law, and does not miss an opportunity to use it to score political points.

We shouldn’t have waited for the law to claim a victim, but this must serve as a wake-up call. It is high time for Québec solidaire and the unions to build an opposition movement against this law. This cannot be done if we are content to pay lip service to it, and if we minimize its discriminatory and islamophobic character. We must take a courageous stand, and unmask the smoke screen that has been the debate on religious symbols. We must denounce Islamophobia and explain that workers of all origins have no interest in this discrimination. Mass demonstrations against the law and its effects should be organized by QS and the unions, especially those in education. It is only through class opposition that we can defeat the bourgeois identitarian nationalists who have been dividing and ruling for too long.