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New Quebec law on display of religious symbols hurts Canada

Montreal, Canada, which is part of Quebec, is subject to the new law regarding religious displays by certain citizens. (YJI photo)

As Canadians, we’ve always been proud of our country for being a home for diversity, a land where multiculturalism bloomed, a country where anyone – whatever they looked like, and whatever they believed in – was warmly welcomed in a society regulated by our national laws and values.

Being Canadian means being proud of that diversity and celebrating it while holding on to who we are as individuals: our different ethnicities, cultures, heritages and religions.

Being Canadian means sticking to our values no matter what, values that shaped all of us despite all of our differences: the values of equality, of freedom and compassion that make our country stand out from others and that make it the land of the free, the land of opportunity, peacefulness and hospitality.

But sadly, the country that has been known for its commitment to democracy, equality and mutual respect for so long has seen – just recently – its values betrayed by its own people.

After almost a decade of fierce debates about religious freedom, the province of Quebec adopted a new law that formally bans civil servants from openly displaying their faith by wearing religious symbols while working in positions of “authority” such as teachers, police officers, and judges.

All over Canada, institutions assert strongly and proudly that there’s nothing incompatible with an employee doing his job while wearing a religious symbol. Even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police allow Sikh turbans to be worn as part of the uniform, but Quebec’s government says it is important to enforce such an unconscionable law, claiming it is only in order to cement what they call a “secular society.”

It’s clear to me that this law isn’t secularism, but on the contrary, an offence to the government’s neutrality. It’s an attempt to enforce laicism in the province and a clear threat to personal and individual liberties. And it threatens everyone – not just religious minorities.

Secularism, unlike laicism, does not mean that religions should be banished and eradicated from the public sphere. It means that everyone should be able to coexist freely, in harmony and respect without any religious institution’s intervention.

Secularism GUARANTEES freedom of religion and the right to equality (including the right to equal employment) and passing a law that forces people to choose between their religion and their jobs, is, without a doubt, the fruit of an erroneous conception.

It is clear that this law was nourished by prejudices and fear more than anything else.

A busy street in downtown Montreal. (YJI photo)

Passing a law in Quebec that makes it legal to deny jobs to people wearing religious symbols, forcing them to deny their core identity every time they’re in the work sphere and using police to criminally enforce it is unscrupulous, reprehensible and deplorable.

It’s an example of rising xenophobia in Quebec, which strikes at the heart of Canada’s model of multi-culturalism.

It’s not up to the government or politicians to tell people what they should wear and what they shouldn’t wear. And seeing Quebec’s government follow in the footsteps of a country like France rather than learn from their mistakes is simply staggering to me.

Quebec’s government must look and learn from the awful – yet eye-opening – consequences such a bill induced rather than open the door to even more troubling problems.

This law will not only promote fear, anxiety and stigmatization, but as we’ve already witnessed in France, it will also increase Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and fear of other minorities. It will encourage the perpetuation of hateful rhetoric towards minorities and reinforce that a person can be judged based on their appearance.

Beyond all that, the way the new law will be applied is still very questionable.

Even though the amendment defined a religious symbol as “any article of clothing, accessory, headgear or jewellery that is worn as a show of faith or religious conviction” and “is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” the definition of religious signs remains very unclear.

How are the “secularism police” going to distinguish between a Muslim headscarf and a cultural headscarf that has nothing to do with religion and that is worn for traditional purposes?

This applies to many other garments and accessories, such as a Sikh turban, that could be worn for religious purposes, for medical reasons or simply to be fashionable.

Many questions arise from there, proving the new law reflects a muddled way of thinking.

How is such a law going to be enforced on someone who tattooed a religious sign on their skin? And what about religious signs that are not common or unknown to the West, such as the widespread yin and yang signs for Taoism?

And what is the next step after enacting this law? If religious symbols are “proselytizing” in the work sphere, aren’t they on the street, too? Or are religious signs going to be banned from public places, as well?

With this new law, Quebec is losing a big part of its identity as a Canadian province.

Diversity – in Quebec and across Canada – was never harmful. It has always been a valuable asset and a source of richness and strength. It should be a reason for pride.

All people here – Canadians or not – should be free to keep their identities and take pride in their ancestry in an atmosphere of open-mindedness, tolerance and respect.

That is what draws everyone together and what drives them to live in harmony.

That’s what makes Canada, Canada.

And it is incumbent upon all of us to stand up for those values.

Lina Temzini, a Canadian citizen, is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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