Bill 21's defenders take centre stage as National Assembly hearings begin

Public hearings into Quebec's controversial secularism kicked off Tuesday morning with an impassioned defence from the bill's author.

"The Quebec nation has chosen action on religious neutrality and religious symbols in the last general election," said Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister for Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness. "The choice made by Quebecers last Oct. 1 clearly demonstrates the will of Quebecers for change."

Jolin-Barrette reiterated his belief that the bill is a moderate one, and called the bill the next logical step in Quebec's Quiet Revolution, and the deconfessionalization of the province's school system.

“Quebec is distinct from Canada and the rest of North America,” Jolin-Barrette said. "This bill is a typically Quebec model of secularism, which defines relations between the state and religions."

Religious symbols called 'advertising'

First up on Tuesday morning was a feminist group which suggested the legislation is critical to protecting women, and should be even more strict.

Diane Guilbault, president of Pour les droits des femmes du Québec, told the committee studying the bill that it's incoherent for the government to ban public school teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job, but not extend the restrictions to daycare workers.

She also insisted allowing teachers to wear religious symbols in the classroom is tantamount to advertising to students.

"It's advertising, advertising an opinion, displaying a store's advertising, it's promotion," Guilbault said. "Even if it's passive, it's active in a certain way because of the way the student looks at the teacher."

Guilbault called Bill 21 "a step in the right direction".

'Emotional blackmail'

Later in the morning, the commission heard from Djemila Benhabib, a former Parti Québécois MNA and outspoken defender of secularism, who called public servants who insist on wearing religious symbols "fundamentalists".

"Women who wear the hijab and believe the law of God is above the laws of the state...those who exert some kind of emotional blackmail by saying they will not remove their hijab, I consider them fundamentalists," Benhabib said.

Later on Tuesday, renowned philosopher Charles Taylor will address the legislative committee members.

Taylor, along with historian and sociologist Gerard Bouchard, wrote a widely cited report in 2008 recommending public sector employees in positions of authority such as judges, police officers and prison guards be prevented from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The report served as a blueprint for Bill 21 for the government of Premier François Legault, which went further by adding teachers to the list of workers in positions of authority.

Taylor has since reversed his position on state secularism and has described Bill 21 as discriminatory.

Bouchard, who is scheduled to address the hearings Wednesday, has criticized the decision to extend the legislation to teachers.

The CAQ has set aside six days for the hearings — three this week and three next week. The commission will hear from nearly three dozen groups, both for and against the legislation.

With files from the Canadian Press.