Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court

Nov. 4, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The long awaited court challenge to Quebec’s controversial secularism law got underway in Montreal’s Palais de Justice Nov. 2 with a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab testifying that her plans to teach in the public system have been dashed, making her feel excluded and inferior.

Bill 21, which became law in June 2019, prohibits public employees deemed to represent state authority from displaying religious symbols while on the job. These include police officers, judges, Crown prosecutors and other government lawyers, prison guards and – most widely questioned – teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, the first witness at the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, had just graduated from the University of Montreal and was hoping to begin her career in a public school when the legislation came into effect. She is now teaching in the private sector, which is not subject to the law. That includes Jewish day schools.

The trial, held in Quebec Superior Court, combines four separate lawsuits against Bill 21, officially entitled “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.”

It was high on the agenda of the Coalition Avenir Québec which was elected with a solid majority in October 2018. The new government quickly shepherded it through the legislative process, despite sustained outcry from minority and human rights groups, legal experts, and the opposition Liberal Party.

Premier Francois Legault described the bill as a “moderate” resolution of the acrimonious debate over “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the public sphere. Polls have shown that a majority of Quebecers agree with him.

All four lawsuits seek the law’s annulment on constitutional grounds but will offer differing legal arguments on why it violates fundamental rights. These have to be complex because the law includes the constitutional notwithstanding clause, which allows the government to override guarantees of religious liberty and equality, including between men and women, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

All of the complainants charge that the law is discriminatory against those whose religious belief requires them to wear such symbols. In practical terms, the greatest impact is on Muslim women.

The law does not specifically name what constitutes a religious symbol but the minister responsible has said it should be commonly understood to mean headwear or jewelry. The law applies to all religions, not only minorities.

Public employees who wore such symbols before the law was adopted are “grandfathered,” but only as long as they stay in the same job description.

Hak is the lead plaintiff for the first lawsuit, launched by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). The others were filed by the English Montreal School Board; the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers’ union; and three teachers – two Muslim, one Roman Catholic who wear religious symbols – who are backed by an interfaith and intercultural coalition.

Gregory Bordan, lawyer for the three teachers and an observant Jew, will argue that the relevant rights were entrenched long before the 1982 Canadian constitution, back even to Confederation in 1867.

Whatever the decision, experts believe it will be appealed and, eventually, taken to the Supreme Court of Canada – a process that could take years.

Last year, a Superior Court judge rejected a request by the Muslim council and CCLU for an injunction against parts of the law with the most direct affect on individuals until their case goes to trial. That decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal in December.

In the current trial, the court did grant intervener status to a pro-secularist group that believes the law does not go far enough.

In the debate before the federal election last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa might intervene in the court challenge, but that has not happened.

During public hearings in the spring of 2019, the Lord Reading Law Society vigorously opposed the bill saying it would create a “state religion” that imposes neutrality and deprive individuals of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

This association of Jewish lawyers believes the bill contravenes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada is a party.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec termed the bill “a disproportionate attack” on basic rights, including equality of opportunity for employment, and urged that, at the minimum, teachers not be subject to it.

It also found the bill’s wording ambiguous, leaving too much discretion in the hands of administrators of public institutions in how it is applied.

B’nai Brith Canada urged the entire law be scrapped, saying it “contributes to the divisions that already exist in Quebec society” and “advocates a militant form of laicity to the detriment of religious individuals and communities that cannot be justified.”

The organization feared that hateful acts against minorities would increase.

Editorial: Kosher or Treif? Help Us Decide

Nov. 4, 2020

We had in mind to call this new addition to the CJR “Bouquets and Brickbats,” but somehow, “Kosher or Treif?” seemed more appropriate.

From time to time, the editors here would like to recognize individuals and groups for their work, whether it’s advancing Jewish ideals, pushing forward a positive agenda, or simply getting at the truth in an era in which objective truth is proving elusive.

On the other hand, we also need to know about those who, to put it politely, do not have our best interests in mind.

Recognition will be complimentary (K= Kosher) or critical (T=Treif). Please feel free to let us know if you agree by sending us your thoughts at canadianjewishrecord@gmail.ca

KOSHER: Andy Lulka is a Montessori advocate and educator. Her quiet but vital work on Holocaust education and confronting antisemitism from a point of intersectionality and anti-oppression is well known in the field. Despite health challenges, Andy has demonstrated that positivity and wisdom leads to strength of purpose.

KOSHER: York Regional Police, which has charged a white nationalist for “uttering threats” against two anti-racist activists in an online chat room. All to prove that hateful actions online can lead to serious consequences.

TREIF: Bobby Orr. The Canadian hockey legend’s fawning statement of support for Donald Trump only tells us that while he played stellar defence for the Boston Bruins, it turns out his embrace of a racist, sexist, misogynist candidate for president was nothing but offensive.

KOSHER: Mustafa Farook is the Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). His outreach to other faith communities has helped build many bridges. Most recently, following a swastika defacement of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Mustafa publicly tweeted, “…To the lowlife that did this, if you want to intimidate the Jewish community, or dishonour the fallen you have to come through us.”

TREIF: Maxime Bernier, leader of the so called People’s Party of Canada, tried to run for a seat in Toronto’s York Centre riding in the recent by-election. His anti-immigrant, climate change skeptic, anti-transgender policies were eagerly echoed by white supremacists and others of the same ilk. York Centre voters, speaking for most Canadians, soundly sent him packing with just 642 votes. But, alarmingly, at 3.6 percent of the total vote, Bernier did better than the Greens in York Centre.

KOSHER: Annamie Paul has become the first Jewish female person of colour to head a federal party, the Greens, in Canada. She faced down sexism, racism and antisemitism to do so. Mazal tov Annamie. A welcome addition to the political scene.

KOSHER: General John Vance and the Canadian Armed Forces. Despite a slow start, the military has taken decisive action to root out neo-Nazis and white supremacists from their ranks. Gen. Vance, the Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff, has issued new standing orders that will assist others in command to take decisive action against racists and haters in the military.

TREIF: Kimberly Hawkins, owner of the Toronto-based restaurant/caterer Foodbenders. Following a flurry of online rants last summer equating Zionists with Nazis, glorifying terrorism, and saying Jews control the media, Hawkins was hit with a lawsuit, two human rights complaints and now, a possible review of her business license by the City of Toronto. Even after she issued a wan apology, Hawkins kept posting her bilge. Her food is treif and she gives us heartburn.

KOSHER: The Hon. Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has initiated a bold new plan that would see thousands more immigrants and refugees welcomed to Canada as part of our pandemic economic recovery.

KOSHER: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and JSpace Canada for the unprecedented move of coming together without rancour to support the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that was approved last week by the Ontario government. This marks the first time in their collective histories that these Canadian Jewish groups from the left to the right of the Jewish political spectrum have issued a joint statement in support of an advocacy issue.

Editorial: Joining Together to Battle Hate

Oct. 6, 2020

Mainstream Jewish and Muslim organizations join human rights groups, anti-hate communities, and peace and labour organizations, all working toward one goal. Impossible?

The joining of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) with the National Council of Canadian Muslims and two dozen other faith-based and ethno-cultural groups might have once seemed a lofty goal, perhaps even unattainable.

And then came a maelstrom: Nazis and white supremacists openly rallying in the United States; murders at mosques and synagogues; right-wing extremist attacks in Canadian cities; reports by experts of hundreds of new hate groups in Canada; and, of course, COVID.

The world changed in the blink of an eye. It became a much more dangerous place, especially if you are Muslim, Jewish, Asian, LGBTQ+, or a person of colour.

Police, of course, investigate crime, but still seem to find it difficult to wrap their heads around hate crime. While anti-hate laws exist, they are rarely invoked, and when they are, investigations can take an incredibly long time. For example, the conviction of those behind Your Ward News, a hateful, antisemitic, misogynistic publication, took five years from the date of the first complaint against it. This was unacceptable for targeted groups.

No amount of group advocacy moved the needle. Indeed, things got worse. Reports began to circulate that the Canadian military harboured numerous recruits who were members of well-known hate groups or had been recently radicalized online. A new political party, the Canadian National Party – racist, deeply antisemitic, and parroting Nazi rhetoric of emptying Canada of Jews – was accorded official party status, allowing it to issue tax receipts for charitable deductions.

Then, just a few weeks ago, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, a caretaker at a downtown Toronto mosque, was brutally murdered while monitoring those entering the building. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network (chaired by CJR publisher Bernie Farber) revealed that the alleged killer has ties to a satanic neo-Nazi organization.

And still no action from any level of government.

Mustafa Farooq, the newly minted executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), decided to do something. Farooq called upon civil society players, through their organizations, to come together and demand better, demand protection, demand change.

As a result, a “Call to Action” was organized by Mustafa through the offices of NCCM. A myriad of human rights groups and faith communities have now signed on to a public letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (found here).

The World Sikh Organization, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Amnesty International, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Baha’i community of Canada, and the African Canadian National Council, are just some of the 26 signatories. Individually, some of these groups don’t play well together in the sandbox, but here, all have recognized the danger by speaking in one loud voice.

These Canadians are demanding from their government that the hundreds of white supremacist, alt right, and neo-Nazi groups be disbanded; for better legal tools, including improved use of anti-terrorism laws for domestic hate groups; better enforcement of laws for social media sites to ensure heavy fines against platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok for disseminating hate, and much more. Civil society, now joined in all its facets, has had enough.