A year ago on June 16, 2019, Quebec’s government passed Bill 21, a law which banned public sector workers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. The law was passed despite Canada’s protection of the right to religious freedom, guaranteed by its Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government invoked the “notwithstanding clause”, which allows the province to override a Charter right for any reason it chooses.
While the government argued that the measure was necessary to ensure secularism (no religious influence) within the province’s public services, many were forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood. One such person was Nour Farhat, who is all too familiar with the adverse, discriminatory effects the Bill has had on her personal and professional life over the past year.
Plans and Dreams Derailed
Farhat, who wears a hijab, has been a lawyer in Quebec since 2017. Born and raised in Montreal, she has lived her life under the protection of the right to freedom of religion, never imagining that this right would come into conflict with her career goals.
“Since I finished my Bachelor of Law in 2016, I knew I wanted to work in the public service,” she told Muslim. “I completed my Master of Laws in Criminal Law with the purpose and intention of becoming a Crown Prosecutor.” Crown Prosecutors are hired by the province of Quebec, and are therefore subject to the religious symbol restrictions put in place by Bill 21.
“Two months before completing my Master’s degree in June 2019, Bill 21 became a law,” she said. “I still had two months to finish my degree. I remember thinking at this moment, ‘Why am I doing my Masters? What is the point if I won’t be able to work for the Crown?’ And it became very discouraging and difficult to finish those last two months of my degree.”
In Quebec, the lawyer licensing process is expensive, can take anywhere between 4 – 7 years and requires years of hard work and mental endurance. For individuals like Farhat, all that money and effort spent on working towards a legal position in the public service was immediately put at risk as she was forced to choose between her dreams and her faith. “I spent money and moved to another city to do my Master’s,” Farhat said. “All year I would complain about how difficult it was. I’d always tell myself it would be worth it once I’m a Crown Prosecutor. Then in June 2019, I got told that this dream would remain only a dream.”
Increasingly Discriminatory and Racist Attitudes
Speaking of Quebec’s history of discrimination prior to the enactment of Bill 21, Farhat emphasizes that the Bill only legitimized existing racist mentalities.
“The government has given a legitimacy to these kinds of racist, Islamophobic attitudes. People feel justified to act a certain way because they know the government is on their side. They know that people like me – people who wear religious symbols – are in a weak position and should not be allowed to work for the province,” she said. “They know that their dreams and their future is affected. It is a very vulnerable position to be in.”
Since the enactment of Bill 21 just over a year ago, Farhat has definitely noticed a shift in the province’s socio-political environment. “The environment has been very heavy. You receive comments from people online and in the streets about your hijab. You receive comments on your hijab from strangers and even people you know. Each time the government makes a law or a bill against religious people, you see it in the streets, you see it in the people, you see that they’re affected. They become more prone to being openly racist.”
The phenomenon draws many similarities to the racial tensions fueled by the divisive policies of the latest United States government. Led by a President that has openly promoted discriminatory laws and policies, his supporters have become more open in expressing their racist, Islamophobic and otherwise discriminatory sentiments. “There’s a definite duality in being categorized as either a white person or an ‘other’ when it comes to going in front of the police or others in positions of power. They don’t view freedom of religion of religious minorities as something that is as important as the freedoms of the majority. It’s the majority deciding the destiny of the minority,” says Farhat in light of the current global civil rights movement led by Black Lives Matter.
“We have laws that protect us as minorities, like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You see that the police are not applying it equally. They do arrest more black, indigenous and Arab people in Canada. And this type of disproportionate treatment is further strengthened against religious minorities through the existence of discriminatory laws like Bill 21.”
“What does the government expect when they violate your rights like that? When they violate the freedom of religion? When you violate someone’s freedom to make a living? All the intended and unintended consequences of Bill 21 were all very predictable – it resulted in open racism and discrimination being made acceptable. Even though Francois Legault [Premier of Quebec] said there isn’t racism in here, I can personally say that I am experiencing systemic racism.”
Farhat is referring to Legault’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism within the province in light of the Black Lives Matter and civil rights movements which have rapidly grown across the globe. “For me, we have Quebecers of different colors, different origins, but we are all human beings and we’re all equals, no exceptions. But we must face the reality and the problems lived by some of our fellow citizens, and we must act,” said Legault, despite spearheading the law which effectively renders religious minorities unequal to the majority population.
“There’s racism in the law. This is something I’m living every day. It’s not just the law, it’s affecting all aspects of my life,” said Farhat, referring to the countless amount of hate messages she receives online on a daily basis.
Quebec also makes the argument that Christians are equally affected and therefore, the law doesn’t explicitly target the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish population. However, the Christian religion does not commonly require any sort of visible garment to be worn. “Observant Christians can easily hide a cross they might be wearing on a necklace; I cannot just hide my hijab under my shirt or take it off,” said Farhat, pointing out how the law disproportionately affects certain religions over others. “When it comes to Muslim’s hijab or a Jew’s kippa, you’re asked to go home, or you’re told that you will lose your job if you don’t conform.”
“The only reason why I’m going through this is because I’m a Muslim woman. I’m a minority, I’m different. If I were white and atheist, I would never have this issue; I would never have to be concerned that a law like this will take away rights that existed since I was born.”
Blessings in Disguise
Though the attack on her faith is aggressive and apparent, Farhat reflects on the positive that has come from this experience.
“I’ve actually been receiving a lot of support outside of the Muslim community. I’ve received messages from the Christian Legal Fellowship, which is active in Ontario, and they’re really active on anything that has to do with freedom of religion,” said Farhat. “It’s crazy how something like a discriminatory law has strengthened interfaith relationships. It made religious people of all faiths much closer to one another.”
Nour Farhat now works at a private law firm in Montreal, practicing in the areas of Civil and Constitutional Law. “I’m one of the lawyers who are working against the Bill. It’s a privilege to be in this position, to represent my client in this case, and to be able to fight against the violation of human rights, especially as a Muslim woman,” Farhat said. “Bill 21 is a sad story, it’s a deceitful move of the government, but I’m in such a privileged position to be able to go to court and to fight the Bill using the abilities and knowledge I’ve gained to become a lawyer.”
Farhat’s trial involving the discriminatory law is expected to start at the end of October 2020. “There are four plaintiffs, my client is one of them,” she told Muslim. “There’s maybe 25 lawyers involved. It’s really amazing to be able to work in such a big constitutional law case, which would not have happened if Bill 21 didn’t pass.”
Farhat speaks of the motivation she gained after the Quebec government had betrayed her despite her work in the public service wearing a hijab. Having earned multiple law degrees, gone through the necessary legal training, learned the inner workings of the provincial government and is fluent in both French and English, she believes that she has acquired all the necessary skills to combat the oppressive law.
“You don’t want me to work with you, so I’ll work against you. It’s the best way to respond to this violation of many people’s human rights.”
A Message of Hope
Given all of her experience in dealing with the negative consequences of a law that openly attacks her way of living, Farhat has a message for those who wish to build a future within the province.
“I’ll tell you what I was thinking for myself at the time the law was created,” she said. “Never change who you are. We should never change our principles for someone else, even less the government, who shouldn’t be controlling what you believe in or how you practice it. It is not the place of the government to tell us how to live and who to be.”
“Be open about fighting violations of human rights. They took away my dream but they will not take away my faith and beliefs.”