This year ends as Quebec faces an unprecedented threat. By this we do not mean the unleashed resurgence of COVID-19, although this is a source of serious concern. A threat of a completely different nature hangs over the province and could cause deep political unrest.
You may have heard of Bill 21, given that it attracts some attention outside Quebec’s borders. Without entering into its long and controversial context, Bill 21 is the attempt of the current Quebec government to impose the secularism of the state by prohibiting the wearing of religious clothing or insignia to people in positions of authority under the jurisdiction of the Quebec.
For example, police officers cannot wear turbanes, judges or lawyers in court cannot wear kippahs, members of government boards and commissions cannot wear crucifixes, and principals and teachers in public schools. cannot wear a hijab.
The ban on teachers is modeled on a 2004 law in France prohibiting the wearing of religious accessories in class. Quebec’s most radical law is the centerpiece of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government led by Prime Minister François Legault. It became law in June 2019 and was immediately challenged as unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights by a list of organizations.
Opponents of the law won a partial victory last year when a lower court judge ruled that the ban on religious clothing did not apply to people working for English-speaking public schools in the province, in because of the special protection of minority education rights in the constitution.
It is roughly assumed that a law of such importance is intended for the Supreme Court of Canada; however, it must first be heard by the highest court in Quebec. This could happen before the October election which the CAQ should win hands down.
Regardless of when opponents of Bill 21 appear before the higher courts, the board of directors is already ready for the potentially most explosive confrontation between a Quebec government and the federal government in decades.
Much more savvy observers of Quebec politics than your scribe see a game unfolding that could provoke an alarming rise in sovereignist sentiment in the province, unprecedented since the 1990s, when a constitutional debacle led to the 1995 referendum that the Federal side won by very little.
Since that key moment, there has been relative peace between Quebec and Ottawa, with the pro-federalist Liberal Party in power in the province for most of that time. The sovereignist Parti Québécois (PQ) won a minority government in 2012 and presented a “charter of values”, which contained measures in line with Bill 21. The bill died when the PQ lost the elections in 2014.
The political terrain changed dramatically in Quebec during the 2018 election, when Legault’s CAQ won a strong majority and relegated the PQ to a handful of seats. Legault, once a powerful minister in Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government, created the CAQ in 2011 to offer voters an alternative to the Liberals without the implicit risk of another referendum on sovereignty.
Bouchard, who came close to leading the separatists to victory in 1995, said the PQ should not attempt another referendum without “creating the winning conditions”. Legault, who has never categorically rejected his dream of independence from Quebec, and who is not known to have the slightest sentimental attachment to “English Canada”, seems to be on the right track to create these “winning conditions”.
Bill 21 is not the only constitutional time bomb that the Legault government has activated. Bill 96, a massive overhaul and tightening of language measures, should be adopted in the new year. Aiming to stem what the CAQ government claims to be an erosion of the use of French in Quebec, Bill 96 is riddled with changes that ensure it will be challenged in court.
The political narrative is already clear as the possible court battle looms. Legault has drawn his line in the sand on issues he considers central to Quebec’s identity and political authority.
The challenge for the federal government is to avoid a nasty battle with the Legault government, which has the winning conditions for a referendum.
By this time next year, the pandemic could be over in Quebec; but it can be replaced by a viral epidemic of feverish nationalism.
Peter Black is a radio host and writer based in Quebec City. He worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Montreal as a journalist and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]