What dreams will die because of Quebec's Bill 62?
2017 has been a bad year for Quebec.
The year began with a terrorist attack. A white supremacist male, Alexandre Bissonnette, raised in a province with one of the highest Islamophobia rates in the country, opened fire on peaceful, praying Muslim men, killing six of them. Despite his attack fitting the textbook definition of terrorism – Bissonnette was ideologically motivated and had the expressed intent of terrorizing Canadian citizens — Quebec decided that Bissonnette is not a terrorist, just a “lone wolf.”
The message is clear: there are white supremacist lone wolves out there, and the Quebec government will do nothing to stop them from terrorizing us.
It gets worse. In its first session after the attack, the National Assembly of Quebec resumed its debate about what Muslim women should be allowed to wear in public. Their choice to resume this debate was callous and insensitive at best, showing no regard for the pain of Quebec citizens reeling from terrorism.
This decision was also reckless, it took no responsibility for how this debate, which singles out and demonizes a small group of Muslim women — a minority within a minority — might have contributed to the culture of Islamophobia so prevalent in Quebec. A majority of Québécois (61 per cent) have a negative opinion of Muslims. Instead of focusing on a real problem terrorizing its citizens (white supremacy) the National Assembly chose instead to focus on a manufactured problem (niqabi women), perpetuating the very Islamophobia that led to the terrorist attack in the first place.
Then, recently, the Liberal government of Quebec passed a sexist, elitist, classist, racist, Islamophobic piece of legislation.
Under the guise of “neutrality,” it passed a decidedly non-neutral, partisan bill. Bill 62 legislates discrimination by denying Muslim women who wear the niqab the right to access public services for which they pay taxes and fees, services like public transportation and public education. In the name of religious neutrality and under the rhetoric of creating a cohesive society, this bill sanctions and legislates religious discrimination, advocating for a homogenous society in which difference is erased rather than celebrated.
Bill 62 is sexist because it makes it legally acceptable to deny women public services. It it is racist and Islamophobic because it allows discrimination against Muslims, a regularly racialized group. It is classist because if Muslim women choose to wear the niqab, they’d better be able to afford their own means of transportation. Wealthy women who wear the niqab will be relatively unaffected; it is the less affluent who will suffer.
In so many ways this bill restricts women’s agency, ghettoizing and isolating women who do not follow narrow, elitist ideals of femininity, in the process violating their right to both freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
I had the good fortune of being born one province over, in Ontario. As a young woman, I wore a niqab for 10 years — from Grade 10 to the end of my masters’ degree, taking the bus each day to get my high school diploma and two degrees at the University of Toronto.
Thankfully, the Ontario government did not have such repressive legislation. Instead, my rights as a Canadian Muslim woman were protected. I was allowed to wear a niqab and get an education. My niqab wasn’t used by the government to ostracize and oppress me, to strip me of my rights as a Canadian citizen. Had I the misfortune of being born in Quebec at this moment in history, I wouldn’t have gotten an education since I wouldn’t have been able to get to school.
Logistics aside, it was bad enough dealing with the daily racism, sexism and Islamophobia, I cannot imagine how much more difficult my life would have been if my province had officially supported the haters.
I know for a fact that without an education and access to public transportation, and the sense that my government was there to support me, I wouldn’t have the life I do today. I would not have completed high school, never mind university. I would not be a professor. I would not be a Canada Research Chair. I would not be who I am.
We cannot account for the innumerable losses that will result from Bill 62. Which Canadian voices and experiences will be erased, made invisible? What dreams will die?
There is nothing good in Bill 62 — it is xenophobia and hatred that cannot tolerate difference. Far from creating social cohesiveness, this bill splinters and weakens us. Bill 62 impoverishes Canada. It’s been a bad year for Quebec but we will suffer collectively for generations to come.
Ayesha S. Chaudhry is the Canada Research Chair in religion, law and social justice and associate professor of gender and Islamic studies at the University of British Columbia.