Law against religious symbols in Quebec, Canada

  • Palbinder Kaur Shergill

    The ban targets minority religious communities.

  • This is a discriminatory law which infringes the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international human rights norms.
By Gurmukh Singh OBE | OPINION |

Quebec has a French colonial background. It is the largest of the 10 Canadian provinces and has a history of religious intolerance.

On Sunday 16 June, 2019, the highly controversial Bill 21 was rushed through a late night vote to ban the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in positions of authority including school teachers, principals and vice-principals, police officers, judges and other law officers. According to a report, the law will be enforced through surveillance and disciplinary mechanisms. The Avenir Québecor CAQ coalition government of Premier Francois Legault has taken an extreme step to curb religious freedoms.

With 75 votes in favour and 35 against in the Quebec&rsquos National Assembly, it seems this ill-considered Bill 21 had strong support from the French majority community . The law will mainly affect turban-wearing Sikhs, hijab-wearing Muslim women and kippah-wearing Jews living in Quebec. The concept of religious symbols is vague. So, other communities in the Canadian multi-cultural society could be affected. Yet, at Federal level, not too long ago we heard the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that he had more Sikhs in his government than Prime Minister Modi of India.

Palbinder Kaur Shergill QC, wears a black dastaar and is now a Supreme Court judge in British Columbia. Some years ago, she stood in court and heard opposing counsel argue that lawyers and judges with religious symbols such as turbans should not be permitted. According to her, the Canadian people have overwhelmingly shown an understanding that secularism is not about stripping people of religious identity, but ensuring that no one faith is given preference over another&hellipOur Coat of Arms, our Constitution, all make reference to God. The Queen, who is our head of state, is also the head of the Church of England. We are thus not really a secular society at all. But for some people who have grown up surrounded by Christian signs and symbols, they may equate that with secularism, and are offended by other people&rsquos outward displays of their faith.

A senior colleague on a discussion forum, Prof Nirmal Singh, has given a fresh angle to community activism in this area. He believes that such discriminatory laws passed in the name of secular ideals should be questioned about the measure to be achieved across the board. A list of identity markers of all groups including the majority community should be prepared. The purpose of such laws including their relevance to the security, culture, trade and economic interests of the country should be tested during their passage in the legislature. Or, failing that, tested under constitutional guarantees in the law courts.

I am sure Sikh organisations challenging such discriminatory laws in the courts will take note

As Judge Palbinder Kaur said: A government might float many outrageous ideas for various political reasons, but these ideas cannot have any traction if the people whom the governments represent, speak out against them.

Gurmukh Singh OBE, a retired UK senior civil servant, chairs the Advisory Board of The Sikh Missionary Society UK. Email: The article first appeared  at The Panjab Times, UK. See here.

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.




Sikh experience of dealing with British civil servants (Asia Samachar, 15 June 2019)

Why Article 25 offends the Sikhs (Asia Samachar, 8 June 2019)


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