Legislative hearings into Quebec’s controversial secularism bill begin Tuesday amid concerns that religious groups have largely been excluded from the process.
Premier François Legault remains insistent that Bill 21, which was tabled in late March, will be passed before the National Assembly’s summer recess.
His government has vowed to streamline its passage, despite vocal opposition. Just six days of hearings have been set aside for testimony from 36 different groups and individuals.
Of those invited to speak, only two represent religious groups: one Jewish, one Muslim. Two umbrella groups with inter-faith membership will also take part in the hearings.
The bill proposes to bar Quebecers from wearing religious symbols — such as the kippa, turban and hijab — in some civil service jobs, including public teachers, police officers and Crown prosecutors.
With so few religious groups invited to speak in Quebec City, critics say lawmakers won’t be hearing much from those who are in the crosshairs of the legislation.
“It’s not dialogue,” said Haroun Bouazzi, who heads the Association of Muslim and Arabs for a Secular Quebec.
Bouazzi’s group was a last-minute addition to the hearing’s agenda. He was reluctant to take part given the government’s grip on the committee agenda, which he called “scary for democracy.”
With a solid majority in the legislature, Legault’s party — the Coalition Avenir Québec — was able to limit who the committee gets to hear.
Opposition parties proposed experts and groups they wanted to invite. A list was drawn up after negotiations between the parties and then submitted to a vote in the National Assembly.
The final list includes close to a dozen groups and prominent individuals that support banning religious symbols.
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“There is an over-representation of people who are in favour of the bill,” said Sol Zanetti, the MNA who will represent Québec Solidaire, a left-wing party, on the committee.
“And there is an under-representation from groups and people who will be affected directly by the bill, like communities who wear religious symbols.”
Lisa Grushcow, a Montreal rabbi, said the setup effectively “stacks the deck” in the government’s favour.
Gruschow is a member of Coalition Inclusion Quebec, one of the umbrella groups that will be heard. She said several other groups she works with were denied a spot.
On Tuesday morning, as the hearings are scheduled to begin, groups representing Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jews will hold a news conference in Montreal to outline their concerns.
They intend to highlight the “incomprehensibility that religious communities are absent from the study of a bill that will deeply impact them,” according to a news release.
In a statement provided to CBC News on Monday, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said: “The consultations will hear from 36 groups. These groups come from different sectors and will offer a diversity of opinions.”
Even though the bill has attracted widespread criticism, it is all but certain to sail through the National Assembly. The government’s cause is aided, moreover, by a divided opposition.
While Québec Solidaire is firmly opposed, the Parti Québécois has indicated it may be willing to back the bill if concessions are made.
As for the Liberals, though they are likely to oppose the bill, the party is currently is revisiting its position on religious symbols.
It has long opposed any restrictions on more commonplace symbols like the hijab. But many members are worrying about declining support among francophone voters, which contributed to the party’s historic defeat in the 2018 election.
At a party meeting this weekend, some potential leadership candidates suggested the Liberals could boost their popularity by endorsing limits on what symbols police officers, judges and prison guards are allowed to wear.