In June 2019, Quebec introduced Bill 21, which banned anyone with a government job – including teachers, police officers, and lawyers amongst many others – from wearing religious symbols of any kind in an alleged attempt to “protect the laicity of the state.” In other words, the goal of the bill is to ensure every aspect of provincial affairs is secular. Much of the support for the bill is founded in islamophobia, a poll by the Association of Canadian Studies found – while the bill targets all religions, it disproportionately affects marginalized groups, particularly Muslims.
On Monday, November 2, dozens of students gathered at the Palais de Justice de Montréal at 8 AM. The Daily spoke to Mustafa Fakih, President of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at McGill, who said the demonstration was held to make sure they are listened to, and to hold the government accountable. Trials challenging the constitutionality of the bill are taking place in the Superior Court of Quebec, but Fakih wants to ensure that the issue is not overlooked – explaining that with the constant news of COVID and the US election, “the last thing [he wants] is the public forgetting how a significant part of their community continues to be marginalized in the name of secularism.” According to Fakih, the protest was successful, especially in reminding the public that the fight against Bill 21 is not over.
According to the bill’s supporters, Global News reports, the goal of Bill 21 is to destigmatize religious symbols. However, many studies have shown that the creation of an “us and them” sentiment between religions – as Bill 21 does – intensifies prejudices between groups. Further, Fakih emphasized that “[the bill’s] implementation has legitimized the feeling of hatred” as the province has essentially endorsed these prejudicial feelings. However, Fakih says that Quebec’s religious communities have accumulated a significant increase in support than they had before the implementation of the bill: “Having this bill in writing has proven and publicized the oppression religious communities face in Quebec.”
McGill University did not show up for its Muslim student population, Fakih maintained. In a statement made before Bill 21 was passed into law, the university issued an overview of the bill while reassuring students that the bill would not affect any of McGill’s policies or practices, despite protests early last year proving otherwise. According to Faikh, instead of the statement providing a sense of support, the message only amplified the administration’s “disconnect with what students are experiencing on the ground.” After considerable prodding from activist groups on campus, including MSA, McGill issued another statement after the bill passed, expressing some concern on the impact the bill would have on job opportunities for students in the future. Since the statement McGill’s action has stalled, Fakih emphasizes, “concern without action is meritless.”
As a result of McGill’s response, several McGill staff, students, and student organizations formed the coalition McGill Against Bill 21 which planned a motion to submit to the McGill Senate, mandating an official denouncement of the bill by the university. The motion would include concrete steps to stand behind students affected, but the pandemic and the university’s closure leaves the coalition’s plans on hold indefinitely.