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In June 2019 Law 21 was adopted in Quebec, a law that forbids people in positions of authority to wear religious symbols at work. That includes those who occupation are as judges, police officers or even teachers. While this law is explained by the party in power to be a solution to the long-standing debate about secularity1 in Quebec, in reality, it is only another symptom of the growing animosity against immigrants in the province, especially against Muslims. 

In the 60’s, After a long love-hate relationship with the Church, Québec separated itself from the entity in what was called the “Révolution tranquille” (quiet revolution). Public institutions, at the time largely controlled by the Church, experienced an intense change as they transitioned into secular bodies by the 70s. The number of practicing Québécois significantly dropped and people have since been reluctant to let the religious sphere into any other realm.

However, at the beginning of the 2000s, the issue of secularity became a hot topic again. This time, however, the fight wasn’t against Catholicism, but mostly against Islam. A commission was appointed to evaluate requests for accommodations from minority groups or individuals – for instance, having tinted windows in a pool for the Hasidic Jews community where men aren’t supposed to see women in their swimming suits, or allowing different leaves for students or workers from non-christian religious groups. Although this council did not directly infringe on anybody else’s freedom, this was too much for some people who argued that at this pace, we would soon have our government imposing Sharia law on the whole province (this is still an argument I hear in 2019). Coincidentally, this rise against Islam happened in 2002, the year after 9/11, and amid a rising islamophobic trend that 17 years later remains present. 

The commission was the start of a long discussion about secularity in Quebec, and was brought to the headlines in 2013, when the Parti Québécois (PQ), led by Pauline Marois, made a proposal to annex to the provincial Charter of Rights and Freedom, a charter of values that would address the “issue” of people wearing religious symbols in public spaces.. The Charter had many controversial points, the main one being the banning of visible religious symbols worn by public workers. Bracelets, necklaces or rings were fine however, pleasantly suiting Christians that often wear a more discreet indication of their faith. The project was fiercely opposed by a significant part of the population, and the PQ lost its next election primarily because it’s failed attempt to make the State constitutionally racist. Unfortunately, this idea, the idea that many thoughts had died with the failed mandate resurfaced in the 2018 election. However, this time the idea of this law drew in enough voters for the party proposing it, the Parti Québécois, to win a majority government, crushing any hopes that other parties could block its passage. 

The new version of it is called Law 21. It no longer bans all workers in the public function from wearing religious symbols,  however, the ban does apply to those who are in a position of authority. Still, the main problem of the law lies in the fact that it is targetting Muslims, particularly Muslim women, more than anyone else. Although the ban technically concerns people from a variety of communities (since it forbids kippahs, turban, and hijab) the demographics of the province and the hate crimes perpetrated in the past few years allows many to “read between the lines” and figure out who is seen as the “problem”. 

In the general assembly, the law was passed under a procedure called “le baillon”, which restrains the time allowed to debate about an issue, a procedure often used by governments to pass a law that’s controversial or urgent. The Supreme Court of Canada also tried to block the law as it was unconstitutional, but Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause, which allows a province to evade certain articles of the constitution. The law was finally adopted in June, although there has been an appeal to revise the law at the Superior Court of Quebec.

This law only is an example of a much greater campaign worldwide that is aggressively racist towards Muslims. In Western countries, it takes the form of proliferating hate crimes, restrictive immigration policies or discriminatory laws like this one. In August 2019, the Netherlands joined a list of European countries such as France, Germany, and Denmark that adopted a law banning face-covering in public spaces. Far more radical actions have also been taken against Muslim communities in the past few years, among them two ethnic cleansings in Myanmar and China. Although we cannot link all of these actions to a deliberate gesture from the international community, this wave of racism is helping to endorse hate crimes and discrimination by giving politicians like Trump a backing which encourages him to talk as he does. There needs to be an active response to the matter since the past twenty years have shown us that being passive in the face of racism won’t make it go away. 

The general fear of outsiders needs to be addressed by political actions by effectively promoting inclusion and integration coming from both top policymakers and grassroots level groups. I believe the media should be more engaged in deleting hate comments or dissolving groups encouraging such comments. This is of course not about violating freedom of expression, but about not letting statements of disagreement becoming an incitement to hatred or violence. 

Right now, societies are slowly growing more and more xenophobic, migration crises are proliferating, and the number of displaced peoples is foreseen to explode in the coming years as climate change causes greater damage. If animosity against outsiders isn’t addressed soon enough, it’ll cause western countries to further close their borders when millions of people will be most in need. 

 We’ve said sorry too many times after such tragedies. But no sorry, no matter how sincere, can revoke all of the suffering that we are causing and that if no actions are taken, we will continue to cause. So even if the law 21 might seem like a small problem in the midst of violence in the world, I pledge to you to address these smaller issues in your community, as they could be “la goutte qui fait déborder le vase”.


  1. From secular: not having a connection with religion.
Aude Gagnon-Roberge

About Aude Gagnon-Roberge