A long-awaited court case is opened in the Canadian province of Quebec this week in which civil rights groups say a law banning some officials from wearing religious clothing is against the country’s constitution.
The lawsuit against Bill 21 was brought by the National Council of Muslims in Canada (NCCM), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), and Ichrak Nourel Hak, a Sikh woman, and will be heard in the Quebec Supreme Court on November 2.
The law, passed in June 2019, prohibits some teachers, lawyers, police officers, and others in the public domain from wearing religious symbols at work, including the hijab worn by Muslim women, the kippah worn by Jewish men, and the turbans worn by Sikhs.
Applicants say the law is discriminatory and creates “second class citizenship” in Canada.
People have “lost their jobs simply because of their clothing and their beliefs,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of NCCM, in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera.
“People have had to leave the province and change who they are. That is not acceptable. That is why we will never stop fighting against Bill 21. “
Nour Farhat, a Montreal Muslim attorney wearing a hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who consider it part of their religion, was pursuing a Masters in law in hopes of her dream of becoming a prosecutor to realize. when Bill 21 was passed last year.
The law has since forced her to work in a private company because she cannot work as a government employee while wearing a hijab.
“(Bill 21) forbade me to take the path I always wanted to take,” Farhat told Al Jazeera. The trial, she added, will be “one of the greatest trials of her life”.
Despite strong opposition, Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault has defended the legislation, saying it is a moderate measure that does not violate religious freedom and is supported by a “large majority of Quebecers”.
A survey of more than 1,200 Quebecers conducted by Leger Marketing in May 2019 found that 63 percent of the people in the province supported Bill 21.
However, according to the survey commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies, only 37 percent of Quebecers had a positive opinion about Muslims, while only 28 percent had a positive opinion about Islam.
Eighty-eight percent of those polled with negative views on Islam were in favor of banning religious symbols for teachers in public schools.
Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault has defended Bill 21, stating that the law is a moderate measure that is supported by the majority of Quebecers [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]While the Quebec government says the law applies to people of all faiths equally, civil rights and community groups say Muslims bear the brunt of its effects – especially Muslim women who wear the hijab.
“It is impossible to deny that this bill contains xenophobic parts,” said Farooq of NCCM. “There’s a reason this bill comes from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism.”
Legault has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that there is systemic racism in Quebec, despite numerous reports outlining the problem.
“When the politicians talk about the bill, they always talk about Muslim women – and not about Sikh men or Jewish men,” Farhat told Al Jazeera.
After Bill 21 was first filed in March 2019, Justice Femme, a Montreal women’s rights group, said it had received more than 40 calls from Muslim women regarding incidents of hatred, including verbal and physical abuse, spitting, and the attempt by people to tearing off their hijab reported.
The murder of six Muslim men in a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 further highlighted Islamophobia in the province.
The recent anti-Muslim attacks outside of Quebec have also raised concerns. In September, a Muslim man was killed outside a mosque near Toronto by a man affiliated with a white supremacist ideology who caused shock waves to the Canadian Muslim community.
“Uphill battle” in court
The Bill 21 litigation “is going to be an uphill battle,” Montreal-based human rights attorney and associate professor of law at Mcgill University Pearl Eliadis told Al Jazeera.
Eliadis said the difficulty was to come up with a legal basis for the law’s abolition that was outside of the exceptions provided by a so-called “derogation clause” called on the Quebec government to pass Law 21.
This rarely used clause allows governments to override certain parts of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms for up to five years.
It is impossible to deny that this bill contains xenophobic parts. There’s a reason this bill came from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism
In December last year, the Quebec Appeals Court denied a motion by the NCCM and CCLA to suspend the application of the law until the substance of the case could be heard, saying the dissenting clause left them no choice but to oppose the plaintiffs to decide.
Still, Eliadis said there are some provisions in the Canadian Charter that are not affected by the derogating clause – such as gender equality and multiculturalism – that can be used to challenge the bill.
That is what the applicants will do in their case – and they hope the law will be repealed. “We want the bill to be completely put down,” said Farooq of NCCM.