Recently, the Government of Quebec adopted a deeply troubling law under the guise of secularism that would prohibit certain Quebecers of faith from participating in public life and in the public sector. The academic community has long been a bastion of diversity and free thought. Pluralism enriches our communities and makes Quebec a more prosperous and welcoming place to live. As the associations and labour unions representing the whole of the McGill Community, we stand together against this divisive law which attacks civil liberties.
The Students’ Society of McGill University firmly denounces the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)’s proposed Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State,” introduced to the National Assembly this past Thursday, March 28, 2019. This unnecessary bill will only exacerbate division in our society, and further marginalize communities already targeted by white supremacy.
The proposed bill seeks to prohibit public workers in ‘positions of authority’ from wearing religious symbols. Police officers, prison guards, public prosecutors, judges, teachers, and principals, among others, would be denied their basic right to freedom of religion and expression. In an added measure that particularly targets Muslim women, citizens would be required to uncover their faces when receiving government services.
Regardless of whether or not this bill passes, immense harm has already been done: By even putting this bill forward, the government has granted further legitimacy to racist and xenophobic bigotry. Two years after the Quebec mosque shooting and two weeks after the same vile hatred caused another horrific mosque shooting in New Zealand, our government should be actively working to address the impacts and effects of white supremacy in our society. Instead, it chooses to actively fuel it.
As Premier Legault has suggested, this proposed law is about values. The chief value and system at play is, undeniably, white supremacy. A mere few hours after Legault’s video in support of the bill was released, far-right groups – whose names we have chosen not to repeat out of a desire not to give them further publicity – took up the Premier’s closing statement as a slogan: “Parce que au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit [Because in Quebec, this is how we live].” There can be no doubt that our government is playing an active role in supporting, popularizing, and radicalizing white nationalist terrorism.
Beyond the real ways in which this proposed law makes our society more threatening and unsafe, it would also have immediate impacts on members of our university community should it pass. While the religious symbols ban does not extend to universities, students currently studying in education, as well as in other areas, are faced with additional uncertainty and precarity. McGill has an obligation to these students. In 2017, the McGill Senate strongly endorsed a motion in favour of the “McGill University administration… seeking opportunities to preserve academic and personal freedoms on campus in response to effects that Bill 62 has or will have on [the] McGill [community].” Now, there is strong precedent for institutions taking concrete action along these lines. Notably, the English Montreal School Board, Lester B Pearson School Board, Mayors of Montreal West and other municipalities have all committed not to enforce Bill 21, should it pass. The Mayor of Montreal and Prime Minister of Canada have also come out against the proposed law. The Students’ Society of McGill University, therefore, calls on McGill University to publicly condemn the proposed bill and to provide meaningful support systems for the affected students. McGill has failed to implement support measures to Muslim students after the New Zealand attacks, making it all the more urgent for them to act now to make campus as safe and equitable as possible. More specifically, McGill must provide affected students, particularly in the Faculties of Education and Law, with the adequate support and direction necessary to better navigate systems that would be inherently stacked against them.
Thanks to the CAQ’s proposed bill, we are once again placed in the position where we must fight to uphold basic freedoms in the face of overt bigotry and violence. As philosopher and distinguished Professor Emeritus Charles Taylor said at a recent event hosted by the McGill Muslim Law Students’ Association: “We only can combat this if we can get together… and we have to make a vow of solidarity, ‘if they come against your rights, I’m in the front line, and if they come against my rights, you’re in the front line.’” There is a demonstration being held this Sunday, April 7th by the Collectif Canadien Anti-Islamophobie, as well as another demonstration being held on April 12th, and on April 14th. We encourage all of our members and our friends in the wider community to attend, and to read and sign onto this open letter addressed to the CAQ.