Appeals of Bill 21 court ruling in Quebec will be making very different arguments


Critics of the “secularism law” agree that the April court ruling must be appealed

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN] – Two of the organizations trying to have Quebec’s controversial secularism law Bill 21 overturned by the courts recently announced hat they will be joining the Quebec government in appealing a court decision released in April, which upheld most of Bill 21.

But the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), who were the first to challenge Bill 21 in the courts, will be appealing the ruling for very different reasons than Quebec’s government.

In his 242-page Quebec Superior Court ruling released on April 20, 2021, Justice Marc-André Blanchard ruled that for the most part the Quebec government does have the power to force government employees not to wear any religious symbols while they are at work.

He made that decision even though his ruling concedes that Bill 21 infringes on the religious freedom and freedom of expression rights of Canadians. But Blanchard ruled that because Quebec’s government invoked the notwithstanding clause of the constitution, most of Bill 21 is shielded from being challenged in the courts.

However, Justice Blanchard did strike down a part of the bill that relates to English language education rights in Quebec because he ruled that the law violates Section 23 of the charter of rights. His ruling says minority education rights can not be upended by the notwithstanding clause.

It is that aspect of the ruling that has angered the provincial government and prompted the Quebec government to announce it was appealing the ruling almost immediately after it was made public on April 20.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told a press conference after the court ruling that the province does not believe the law in Quebec should be applied differently based on language.

“The laws of the National Assembly apply throughout Quebec. There is no question of dividing Quebec in the application of Quebec legislation,” said Jolin-Barrette.

But while the ruling has appeased English school boards in Quebec that were part of the challenge to Bill 21 — and those school boards vow to defend the court ruling on appeal — two of the main English school board’s allies in the case challenging Bill 21 now say will also appeal the ruling. And they say it is Bill 21 and the Quebec government that is dividing Quebecers, not those who are against Bill 21.

“Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard recognized that there are fundamental problems with Bill 21. The stories of how real people continue to be harmed by Bill 21 are clear in this decision. There are real life consequences to the harms that Bill 21 causes,” a joint statement May 6 from the NCCM and CCLA said, adding that the two organizations will continue to challenge Bill 21 to the Canadian Supreme Court if they have to.

“The government wants to make us believe that the court’s decision divides Quebecers,” said CCLA equity program director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv.

“In fact, the legislation known as Bill 21 is itself the source of division, discrimination, and harm to Quebec society,” she said. “Quebecers deserve choice and freedom from government oppression, and that is why we will continue to fight Bill 21.”

Many human rights and religious groups have been calling on the federal government to get involved in the legal challenges to Bill 21, but so far the federal government’s position has been to stay out of the Quebec court cases. That is a position that has been reiterated by most of the other federal political parties in Canada, including the Conservatives and the NDP.

But despite the lack of action or support from the main federal political parties which have all framed the issue as being a provincial issue in Quebec, opponents of Bill 21 will continue to seek to overturn Bill 21 in the courts.

“It has been almost two years of second-class citizenship for Quebecers who wear religious symbols such as the hijab, kippah, or turban,” said NCCM Director of Quebec Affairs Yusuf Faqiri.

“We promised that we would not stop fighting until second-class citizenship ends for all Quebecers.”