Ten years after the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodations, the debate on whether a public employee should be allowed to wear visible religious symbols rages on in Quebec. Judging by the countless op-eds, heated online comments, and overzealous statements by Quebec politicians, following Montreal councillor Marvin Rotrand’s suggestion to allow them in Montreal police uniforms, a consensus is nowhere to be reached.

Rotrand recently suggested that Sikh police officers be allowed to wear turbans and Muslim officers be allowed hijabs to attract more diverse recruits and build a force that better reflects the population it serves. Montreal mayor Valerie Plante immediately expressed an openness to the proposal and considers efforts to be more inclusive a “sign of the times”.

While French Quebecers’ aversion to religion is understandable and rooted in historical reasons, it’s frustrating to still see the province ruled by it. @Toulastake #cdnpoli #qcpoli #secularism #hijab #turban

However, that’s where the political enthusiasm for the proposal came to a screeching halt. With a fall election on the horizon, provincial parties grabbed on to this counterproductive debate and, once again, made it an electoral issue. In a rare display of unanimity, all opposition parties, (The Parti Québécois, Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire) rejected the idea. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, in the meantime, while in favour, stated he thinks it’s a local city issue, basically choosing to deflect responsibility.

As with most public debates on religious accommodation — since so few real requests are ever actually made — this one, too, was shaping up to be one more case of party leaders “bravely” drawing a line in the sand over an imaginary problem. Until Sondos Lamrhari entered the picture and the hypothetical suddenly had a face, a name, and a beaming smile from ear to ear.

Ever since I saw the image of Sondos Lamrhari, the 17-year-old hijab-wearing Montreal teen, a police technology student, plastered on the front page of the Journal de Montreal, I haven’t been able to forget her
Sondos Lamrhari hopes to be the first woman wearing a hijab to enter the Montreal police force.]

Ever since I saw the image of the 17-year-old hijab-wearing Montreal teen, a police technology student, plastered on the front page of the Journal de Montreal, I haven’t been able to forget her. She looks so young, so proud, so full of hope for her future. And I’m deeply concerned by the hateful comments directed at her. She’s a typical young Quebecer in every way one can think of – while also wearing the hijab. And she wants to be a Montreal police officer.

And yet, judging by some people’s reactions, you’d think her wish to combine her faith with her career aspirations somehow threatens to undermine all that Quebec stands for. What do we stand for? Religious neutrality at the expense of everything else – including inclusion and social acceptance? Is that, too, not a form of extremism, the very issue so often decried by those fearful of difference?

While French Quebecers’ aversion to religion is understandable and rooted in historical reasons, it’s frustrating to still see the province ruled by it. Not because political and social decisions are still dominated by unquestionable servitude to the Catholic faith, but, often, because decisions are taken in reaction to everything faith stands for.

Putting aside the Islamophobic comments one sees expressed quite openly by some about “Muslims wanting to push their agenda,” most Quebecers are not motivated by xenophobia or intolerance of immigrants. Two main principles always seem to be at the heart of this ongoing debate: gender equality and secular public institutions. Neither, however, are truly served here.

First off, Quebec’s staunch commitment to secularism is inconsistent and hypocritical to say the least. One can hardly demand that visible symbols of one’s faith are limited and/or removed from public places as a gigantic cross still looms over the City of Montreal and a cross hangs on the walls of the National Assembly.

The arguments against religious symbols in public office in defence of gender equality also remain weak. Those who see hijabs or niqabs as symbols of women’s subjugation are somehow comfortable with coercion serving as the solution to the possible problem of coercion. In other words, it's like telling women we assume she may have been forced to wear the hijab, so we will make her to remove it against her will. Just to be safe.

I've said this before, but sometimes I feel like I’m in a Monty Python movie on a continuous loop.

“We were in the nick of time. You were in great peril.”

“I don’t think I was.”

“Yes, you were. You were in terrible peril.”

“Let me go back and face that peril.”

“No, it’s too perilous.”

Is it possible for Quebecers opposed to the hijab to understand that a woman can be completely modern, independent, a progressive thinker and able to conduct herself professionally while still choosing to wear a headscarf? Is it possible to consider that the majority’s personal assumptions and cultural bias shouldn’t be enough of a justification to restrict the minority’s religious freedom and possible career choices?

Religious neutrality debate should force Quebecers to face our own bias

Mainstream media has been way too often complicit in feeding stereotypes of the “exacting immigrant” who is forcing Quebecers to bend over backwards to accommodate them. If one looks at religious accommodation requests nothing could be further from the truth. The religious minority in Quebec that has brought the most cases to the Quebec Human Rights Commission? Protestant Christians. Yet you wouldn’t know it by the persistent stereotyping and fear mongering in the media – and along with it the backlash towards Muslims.

Remember when Halal hysteria gripped Quebec a few years ago? “Tous les Québécois mangent tous Halal” screamed the front page of Le Journal de Montréal, as panic and mass frenzy would soon engulf its readers.

Interviewed by other media outlets, Olymel (the slaughterhouse behind the controversy) quickly – and might I add, in bewildered fashion – set the record straight on the nefarious plot to force unsuspecting Quebecers to eat Halal that never was.

How about TVA’s recent story about how a mosque prevented female construction workers from working near the vicinity? That, too, proved to be false, yet it spread like wildfire because it fed into the popular notion of Muslims as treating women as unequal. It’s time we took a good hard look at how our own misconceptions and prejudice against religious minorities feed into these debates that have ultimately made a simple issue unnecessarily complicated.

Those opposed to the wearing of religious symbols in public office often point to the Bouchard-Taylor report as irrefutable proof that the matter was already settled close to a decade ago.

Only it wasn’t.

The report called for a ban on religious symbols worn by public servants in positions of coercive authority. That means police, judges and prison guards. It also called for the crucifix in the National Assembly to be relocated in the Parliament building to a place that emphasizes its heritage value. Last I checked, it’s still where it’s always been since former premier Maurice Duplessis had it installed in 1936.

Most importantly, however, for those who suffer from a particular type of selective amnesia, philosopher Charles Taylor (half of the commission, the other was sociologist Gérard Bouchard) actually had a change of heart in 2017.

Alarmed by the PQ’s Charter of Values that quickly followed (which wanted the ban extended even to teachers and daycare workers), and how it helped create the “stigmatization” of certain religious minorities, particularly of the Muslim community, and deeply affected by the horrific attack at the Quebec City mosque, Taylor appealed for openness and called for politicians to resist the temptation to appeal to “old stock Quebecers”.

Put aside the fact that a miniscule minority of people are devoutly religious enough that it affects their clothing and their outward appearance, this constant desire to appeal to the fears of the many and pander to them for votes forces politicians to continue to step all over the religious rights of the few.

The Liberals’ Bill 62 is no better as legislation goes. This anti-face-covering law is so confusing and so contradictory that when it’s not being ridiculed as unenforceable, it’s being criticized for being deeply discriminatory. Not to mention that, six months after being voted in, we still don’t know how it will be implemented.

Finally, this absurd (or perhaps, naive) notion that banning someone who wears a visible religious symbol will somehow preserve the neutrality of their position. Are we really going to limit people's potential career choices on the assumption that someone is incapable of separating their personal religious beliefs from the demands of their specific job? Doesn’t that say more about our own bias and prejudice that a person with visible religious symbols is immediately assumed to be incapable of professionalism and objectivity, yet someone without them is the golden standard of neutrality?

“But what if a Muslim woman is trying to escape an abusive husband and sees a police officer wearing a hijab? She won’t trust her to help her,” go the hypothetical arguments. Never does it register to these often-well-meaning naysayers that an abused woman might be just as reticent to trust a male officer wearing no religious symbols simply because he’s male, or that perhaps the hijab is also associated with the kindness and love of her female relatives and friends and isn’t the hateful symbol some non-Muslims make it out to be.

This thought process also implies that a nurse wearing a hijab is not capable of tending to a Jewish patient with care. That a Sikh judge will treat a Hindu prosecutor unfairly. That a Roman Catholic pharmacist with a cross around their neck won’t give the “morning-after” pill to a woman. It also unfairly implies that a person in authority who does not exhibit visible religious symbols is impartial and unbiased, making neutrality de facto their exclusive domain.

However, what about the very visible societal bias of seeing a police force that never represents your reality? Montreal is a multi-cultural, multi-language and multi-ethnic city. One person in three living in Montreal is a member of a visible minority and a considerable percentage of its citizens are immigrants. Despite that, efforts to recruit minorities have been lacklustre at best. You wouldn’t know how diverse we are by looking at our police force. Or our firefighters. Or City Hall for that matter. You know… those positions of authority where impartiality matters so much. If the next generation of communities can’t see themselves reflected in the faces of those who enforce our laws, those who serve and protect, those who hand out legal judgments, those who vote in legislation, then how do they feel like full and equal members of this society and not second-tier citizens?

The hijab and turban have already been long accepted elsewhere

Decades ago, Baltej Dhillon fought for the right to wear a turban in the RCMP. He, too, faced major opposition. More than 250,000 people signed a petition against allowing a turban on a Mountie. He received death threats.

But the federal government changed its rules for him in 1990, and when two fellow Mounties challenged it in court, they lost. Today, the 27-year Mountie veteran has an important job as operations officer for the RCMP's provincial intelligence centre in Surrey, B.C. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan wore a turban while serving with the Vancouver police service and the Canadian Forces and it never posed a security risked or made others question his abilities or judgment.

The RCMP has allowed the wearing of hijabs for their officers since 2007 because they wanted to recruit members from more diverse backgrounds. The cities of Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver allow the hijab. The City of Toronto approved it before there was even a demand. Scotland, Sweden, Australia, Dubai, Canada, the United Kingdom, and numerous American cities (New York and Washington, D.C. among them) allow the hijab within their police forces.

In the meantime, last year the RCMP quietly decided it was perfectly ok to allow police officers to wear head scarfs if they want to. The decision was made to better reflect diversity in Canadian communities and to encourage more women to join the RCMP.

What has happened since then? Absolutely nothing. The same way I suspect nothing will happen if the Montreal police force allows hijabs and turbans for their officers. What will happen, however, is that young Sondos will be able to realize her dream of becoming a police officer and the message will be communicated loud and clear; she belongs, too. Just the way she is. Equal, but different. What a beautiful message of inclusiveness and diversity indeed.

Two visions of Quebec are currently clashing with this ongoing debate: one is monochrome, fearful of change, and one-size-fits-all forced standardization, and the other is about inclusion, diversity, acceptance and celebration of our differences. Judging by the latest polls, young Quebecers, who've grown up side by side with friends who wear the hijab and the turban, are in favour of the former.

What I find most unfortunate in this debate is that someone’s personal decision to wear religious garments continues to be viewed by so many as “controversial agitation,” while much-desired "neutrality" is really nothing more than what the majority considers acceptable and inoffensive.

There is nothing neutral or unbiased about a religious minority not being able to see themselves represented. It’s a deliberate choice to enforce a neutrality that excludes so many other versions of humanity and ways of life. That choice ultimately neither serves nor promotes true integration and acceptance of all Quebecers.

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