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The CAQ’s racist laws: the struggle continues

Chantal Sundaram and Deborah Murray

June 26, 2019

Unjust laws must be defied, sometimes by both legal and illegal means. The two laws fast-tracked in mid-June by the Coalition Avenir Québec that entrench anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia fit that description.

In the latest travesty of justice represented by the CAQ’s move to ban religious symbols in many parts of the public sector, Bill 21 was forced into law by invoking a Parliamentary measure called “legislative closure” to shut down opposition debate.

The new law forbids the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace by civil servants such as police, judges and crown prosecutors, and also public school teachers. In addition to stoking racism and Islamophobia in society generally, it threatens the employment and career aspirations of thousands. Teachers already on the job will be exempt under a grandfather clause, but they will lose it if they move to another school or accept a promotion to the principal's office.

On the same weekend, the CAQ used closure to pass a law restricting Quebec’s immigration system, Bill 9. It lays the groundwork for a racist Quebec values test that immigrants will need to pass in order to become permanent residents. Although imposing this test will require the go-ahead from the federal government, just passing such a law contributes to stoking a climate of fear and hate. The new law is about moving towards a merit-based application system and deepens the false narrative about “good” and “bad” immigrants.

Both of these laws fly in the face of human rights and have nothing to do with secularism or the needs of the job market. They are about stoking racism to deflect anger over austerity and the climate crisis, by appealing to a politics of “identity” which has nothing to do with Quebec’s legitimate right to self-determination as a nation.

From protest to defiance

Despite outrage over the immigration law, and despite rallies and human chains around schools that showed the lack of consensus in Quebec society for the religious symbols ban – and despite objections from both the Liberals and Quebec solidaire in the National Assembly – the CAQ pushed through its divide-and-conquer agenda in a single weekend.

Rallies and sit-ins took place in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City, with hundreds of Montreal protesters joining in on June 17 to protest the religious symbols law which will target above all Muslim women. The next day, a week-long hunger strike began against the religious symbols law. Those participating expressed their desire to demonstrate the human cost of the ban and the resolve to resist it.

Even though it violates both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms, the religious symbols law was introduced by invoking the notwithstanding clause, intended to shut down any challenge to its constitutionality. Nevertheless, a motion was immediately filed in Quebec Superior Court by civil liberties organizations seeking an injunction and that the law be declared invalid – not on the basis of the Charter, but arguing that it is criminal legislation and so outside provincial authority.

A legal strategy can be effective if it is linked to popular resistance. In the case of Bill 9, an injunction filed prior to the bill’s passage stopped the CAQ from trying to shred 18,000 immigration applications already in process as soon as the bill was tabled. But while the injunction stopped the CAQ from resetting the clock on existing applications before the law was passed, it did not stop it entirely. The new law now allows the government to throw out a backlog of roughly 16,000 skilled immigrant worker applications. The CAQ also cut the number of new immigrants for 2019 by 20 per cent last December.

Popular resistance will be crucial to challenging both laws in the courts. And when it comes to applying the religious symbols ban, a willingness to defy the law will be critical as well. It would not be the first time people in Quebec have openly defied an unjust law – and not only in the riots that refused conscription in two World Wars, but much more recently.

In the Maple Spring of 2012, thousands of students defied the restrictions on legal protest imposed by Bill 78 by refusing to obey its requirement to provide march routes to police in advance of demonstrations and by refusing to stop marching at night. Thousands of non-student supporters demonstrated their defiance by coming out in front of their homes every night to bang on pots and pans (“casseroles”). Bill 78 was repealed along with the tuition hike the students were fighting, and it demonstrated the impact mass defiance of the law can have.  

Since 2012, a climate of racism has been deliberately stoked by the PQ, the CAQ, and also the Quebec Liberals, which poses a serious challenge to the kind of solidarity and civil disobedience that will be required to resist this law. But a movement against the religious symbols ban must be built. What will happen now is a kind of guerilla warfare, to make it as unenforceable as possible in practice.

Guerilla warfare

In the lead-up to the adoption of the religious symbols ban, a number of municipalities and school boards declared their opposition, with some pledging to defy it.

In April, two independent school trustees, Violaine Cousineau and Jean-Denis Dufort of the Montreal school board (CSDM) published an open letter in Le Devoir calling on their board to join the English school boards in actively defying the law through civil disobedience. In June, the CSDM adopted a motion to put off the law’s application until fall 2020 and to consult with parents, school councils and unions before making changes to its own regulations. However, the Quebec school board federation (FCSQ) announced its intention to apply the law throughout the rest of Quebec at the start of school in fall 2019. 

In April, the Montreal Municipal Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the law. Montreal mayor Valérie Plante had said previously that police targeted by the law would be subject to the rules determined by the police force, and emphasized municipal autonomy. Before the bill was tabled Plante said that Montreal would be going ahead with its plan to allow police to wear religious symbols, including the hijab. Now Plante is saying she will obey the law, though raising concerns about its application. How far she as mayor will be willing to go in taking on the CAQ by asserting municipal autonomy will depend on popular resistance.

While other Quebec mayors have shamefully come out in favour, local efforts are ongoing to lobby councillors to oppose the law, as in the municipality of Gatineau. There are also many behind-the-scenes efforts to provide direct assistance to those affected.

Open defiance will be an uphill battle: the CAQ amended Bill 21 at the very last minute giving the government power to ensure that institutions such as school boards must comply and imposing sanctions if they do not, prompting many to predict this could result in a “secularism police.” This will only give confidence to far-right racist forces mobilizing their own horrific “snitchlines” on the internet, which will target Muslim women above all.

False consensus, false mandate

The CAQ claims it has a mandate for all this because it promised throughout its election campaign to pass a law on secularism and to cut immigration. But like the Ford government in Ontario, the CAQ only has a Parliamentary majority, not a popular one.

Polls do show a disturbing increase in support for laws that restrict immigration and target Muslims, and not only in Quebec. A May poll conducted for Global News reported that almost half of Canadians surveyed said that having racist thoughts was normal and acceptable.

Within Quebec, there is a huge generational divide. A Leger poll in Le Devoir during the lead-up to the law reported that 59% of Québecois support a ban on religious symbols for teachers. However, the newspaper clarified that the results “hide a deep division between younger and older Quebecois.” Those in the age group of 18-24 support teachers having the right to wear religious symbols while those over 65 are radically against.

But when people are asked whether they support banning religious symbols they are not asked whether they support people losing their jobs because of their racialized background or religion. The actions that unions are willing to take will be critical to exposing this false consensus.

Sylvain Malette, president of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE, a teachers’ union independent of the major teacher federations) called the ban a “witch-hunt against the hijab.” Other unions that oppose the law include: the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Conseil régional FTQ Montréal métropolitain, the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ), and the Fédération du personnel de l’enseignement privé (FPEP). Collective agreements and the right to grieve discrimination in the workplace under human rights legislation will be important line of defence against the law.

One way or another, the CAQ is dead wrong when it says this has “settled the secularism issue.” The first battle against the law may have been lost, but the struggle continues. And the struggle against it can build confidence to turn back the attack on immigration.

La lutte continue.

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