When the separatist Parti Québécois first came to power in Québec more than four decades ago, the language issue was front and center. It displaced the religious issue during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when the province’s overwhelmingly Catholic identity collapsed. Within two years the government had enacted Bill 101, securing French as the preeminent means of communication in public life—which sparked a steady flight of Anglophones to other provinces. This was soon followed by a failed referendum on sovereignty in 1980.
Another law now threatens Canadian unity. This time, religion has overshadowed language. Québec’s Bill 21 was enacted earlier this year by Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government. This controversial legislation prohibits provincial public employees from wearing overt religious garb—such as hijabs, turbans, and crucifixes—while on duty. Although this obviously conflicts with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms‘ guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression,” Legault’s government has invoked the Charter’s section 33 to defend the bill. This so-called Notwithstanding Clause allows Canada’s governments to enact legislation notwithstanding certain sections of the Charter for renewable five-year periods. Legault is intentionally following France’s century-old model of laïcité, an official secularism claiming to keep religious divisions safely out of the public square.