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Legislative Catharsis, Part One: A Primer on Québec’s Veil Bans for Europeans

Date:22 May 2019
Author:Muhammad Velji
Young women wearing the fleur de lys, a symbol of Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz.
Young women wearing the fleur de lys, a symbol of Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz.

The Canadian province of Québec is currently debating Bill 21, “an Act respecting the laicity [secularity] of the State," which would ban certain public officials from performing their duties while wearing religious symbols. Although it has been widely criticized as an attack on Québec's Muslim population, the Bill retains significant public support. In this two-part primer, philosopher Muhammad Velji explains how such "veil bans" came to be thinkable in Canada, starting with Québec's "Quiet Revolution."

Part 1: Understanding Québec and the Background Conditions of the Veil Bans[1]

To understand what led to three attempts at banning the veil in Québec in six years from 2013-2019, one must understand the historical context and culture which set up the conditions for Québec’s own unique brand of laïcité [secularism]. In this first part I will both set the scene as well as introduce conceptual distinctions in order to properly analyze the veil bans. In the second part, I will analyze as well as give a timeline of the veil bans.

To understand Québec politics, you must understand the impact of the Quiet Revolution.

For fifteen years, with the help of the Catholic Church, conservative Premier Maurice Duplessis had kept Québec in the grip of rural, religious, and anti-statist traditionalism. But with his death in 1959, Québec embraced the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. In a mere six years, the Quiet Revolution [Révolution tranquille] changed Québec completely. The province secularized, moved toward urbanization, and embraced the welfare state. Jean Lesage, the new Liberal Premier, instituted a socialist contract in Québec, opening new public institutions, making university education and healthcare more accessible to the working class -- but also instituting heavy progressive taxation to pay for it all. There was also significant demographic change, with a dramatic increase in the age of marriage and a drop in birth rates signalling the lessening of the Church’s power over norms in Québec society. Finally, while Duplessis had held an anti-separatist stance, the Québec independence movement began to rally around their unique linguistic culture.

Jocelyn Maclure separates the legacy of the Quiet Revolution into two, what he calls the “Civic-Pluralist” view and the “Romantic-Conservative” view.[2] The civic-pluralist view embraces the Quiet Revolution and sees secularization as succeeding in turning Québec society into an outward-looking nation that is strong enough to integrate outsiders. Meanwhile the romantic-conservative position views Québecers as having a specifically Catholic historical identity, a linguistic island that must be defended against the global and internal pressures surrounding and threatening it. They believe holding fast to the “three pillars of survival” (our faith, our language, our institutions [Notre foi, notre langue, nos institutions]) is the only way for the French-Canadian culture to endure. It naturally follows for them that Canadian multiculturalism is an imposition. From this perspective, Québec as a nation should demand substantial cultural assimilation from immigrants.

This inheritance of the Quiet Revolution has led to what Maclure calls the “strange bedfellows thesis.”[3] There are two very different reasons that veil bans are supported in Québec. Some from the civic-pluralist view see the Quiet Revolution as an historical struggle, with laïcité as a hard-won achievement. From this perspective, the achievement of gender equality and hard separation of church and state are threatened by the “regressive tendencies” of religion, and any accommodations would allow public religiosity to sneak back into the public sphere. For the romantic-conservative, on the other hand, non-Catholic public religiosity -- especially  Islam -- threatens Québec’s identity, which has historically given special status to Catholicism.

Though on the opposite spectrum politically and for very different reasons, these two views have become bedfellows in support of veil bans. Québec is more than implicitly what Etienne Balibar calls a Catho-laïcité.[4] It is explicitly a secularism with a default favouring of Catholicism. Not only is the background culture Catholic, in that Christian holidays are celebrated and Sunday is the default day off, but there is a crucifix in the parliament and a 30 metre, LED lit cross at the highest point in Montréal that is visible from up to 80 km away.

Because of its relationship to Canada and also the Quiet Revolution, Québec political parties do not necessarily run on a simple Left to Right spectrum. All four important parties, the Liberals, the Parti Québecois (PQ), Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) contain multitudes and factions. Traditionally, the Liberal Party has contained all the federalist Francophone Québecers who are both Left and Right as well as all the English Québecers, also both Left and Right. The Parti Québecois contains all the separatists who can be both civic-pluralists and romantic-conservatives. The ADQ was an upstart party in 1994, attracting disillusioned Liberal and PQ voters by being neither separatist nor federalist but instead arguing for more independence from Canada. The ADQ was a populist right-wing party and with their charismatic leader Mario Dumont, who became the opposition party in 2007, relegating the PQ to third. In 2012 the ADQ merged with the CAQ and Francois Legault, Dumont’s spiritual successor, swept to majority power and is the current government of Québec.

The two poles of power within Québec are Montréal and Québec City. Montréal is a cosmopolitan city with the largest concentration of Jews and Muslims in Québec. The West of the city is the centre of English Québec, yet it also hosts a large population of blue-collar French separatists to the East. Québec City is a smaller, more homogenous, separatist city and houses the Québec provincial government.

Finally, it is important to realize that Québec was not alone in banning the veil. The rest of Canada, even with its multicultural policy in place, has had its own brush with Islamophobic veil bans. Zunera Ishaq, a woman who wanted to take her oath of citizenship at the start of 2014 in her niqab, was denied by a 2011 niqab ban from this ceremony by the government of Canada. The Prime Minister at the time, Conservative Stephen Harper, was facing an upcoming election against the charismatic Justin Trudeau and saw this as an opportunity to make Muslim dress a wedge issue. Words like “tribal” and “medieval” were used. An American-style culture war was brewing.

The Canadian government attempted a kind of “grass roots” sign-up sheet if you agreed with Harper’s veil ban, entitled “Not The Way We Do Things Here.” The work of dog-whistle politics and making the niqab stand in for something else began with a snitch phone line being established to report “barbaric cultural practices.” Still, Ishaq successfully challenged and won her right to wear the niqab through the courts because the veil ban violated Canada’s Charter of Rights.

In the end, Trudeau won by a landslide. Yet to take this to mean that Harper’s plan to pit “real” Canadians against (Muslim) outsiders threatening the nation’s identity failed is to miss that 82% of Canadians supported Harper’s veil ban. Currently, with the government weak from scandal, the mood has changed in Canada. With an incel terrorist attack in Toronto and a swing to right-wing populism in Ontario and Alberta, Muslims and other minorities worry that Andrew Scheer, the new leader of the Conservative Party, could try Harper’s ploy again as elections approach in October.

If the background conditions related above was the oxygen in the room that made the veil bans possible, then the spark that politically triggered the veil bans were a series of events in 2006 and 2007, the so-called “crisis” of accommodation and the Bouchard-Taylor commission that recommended both a secular and institutional reaction to this “crisis.”

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada decided on the case of Multani, in which a Sikh boy brought a kirpan to his Montréal school. The court decided in his favour, allowing him to bring the kirpan to school. This decision was seen to grant an expansive conception of religious freedom to minorities seeking exemptions from rules of general application. The decision was in many ways a compromise, since the kirpan could only be brought to school in a sheath taped shut in an envelope, but this decision was also a reversal of Québec’s Court of Appeals’ ruling. The decision was widely debated in the media, with 117 articles written about it.[5]

Québec makes over 70% of the world’s maple syrup supply and it has always been a central part of Québecois traditions. One tradition is going to a cabane à sucre or a sugar shack during the annual harvest of maple syrup. During Easter, often whole families go out to the woods to the place where maple sap is collected and boiled down into the syrup. They pour hot maple syrup into the snow to eat as popsicles, have sleigh rides, and importantly eat a multi-course meal, usually involving maple syrup in every course but also usually pork. For example, a favourite dish is oreilles de crisse, which translates literally into “Christ’s ears” and is actually deep-fried pork rinds.

In 2007, a group of Muslims wanted to take part in this tradition and so a contract was made with a private company, a sugar shack, to provide alternatives to the pork in the food. That same Spring, another sugar shack was asked by a group of Muslims if there was a place they could pray in the late part of the afternoon. That sugar shack accommodated the Muslims by clearing off the half empty dance floor and offering those people a free horse drawn sleigh ride instead.

The aftermath was hundreds of comments online, the sugar shacks boycotted, and the owners receiving death threats.

I think both these anecdotes give us a picture of why Québec’s veil bans are so unique. The antagonism to the Multani decision gives us a picture of Québec attempting to show its legislative independence as a nation both from the Catholic Church after the Quiet Revolution and against the hegemonically powerful English Canada’s policy of multiculturalism. The second is a more tragic picture of a small private incident of accommodation. This was then taken up by the media, events exaggerated, sensationalized by pretending the sugar shack was forced rather than contracted to accommodate, and corrective voices buried.[6] Stories like these were put in a feedback loop by opportunistic politicians who gave sensationalized takes back to the media.

The knock-on effects were also tragic as this is pointed to by Muslims as something they remember even now. They had come to Québec, learned French, and tried to integrate by taking part in a Québec tradition. Yet their efforts to do so were maligned. Most never bothered to try sugar shacking again, caught in the double bind of going but angrily not being accommodated or not going and being criticized for not integrating.

In 2007, spurred by the inflammatory words on integration by leader of the ADQ Mario Dumont, Jean Charest, the Liberal Party Premier at the time, appointed a commission to study and make recommendations about “reasonable accommodation.” Informally named after the two academics who headed it, philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, the Bouchard-Taylor report, was released after a year.

The report gave three kinds of recommendations. The first was that judges, crown prosecutors and prison guards should be prohibited from wearing religious symbols, but that other public servants including teachers, lawyers and health professionals were exempt from this. The second kind was an attempt to make Québec a little less Catho-laïc by abandoning Christian prayers at public meetings and relocating the crucifix from the Parliament building. The third was an attempt to make integration easier for immigrants by giving support to parents to adjust and allow religious persons to have their own holidays off.

As we will see in Part 2 of this post, only the first kind of recommendation was ever taken up while the second and third were ignored.


Muhammad Velji is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at McGill University. His dissertation, The Philosophy of Piety: How Muslim Women who Veil Allow us to Rethink Automaticity, Agency, Adaptive Preferences, and Autonomy, explores notions of autonomy among Muslim women who veil. Muhammad is also a Fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization at the University of Groningen.


[1] I want to thank Jennifer Guyver, Anne Iavarone-Turcotte and Frédérick Armstrong for conversations about this. All mistakes are my own.

[2] Maclure, Jocelyn. 2011. “Québec's Culture War: Two Conceptions of Québec Identity” In Québec Questions: Québec Studies for the Twenty-First Century, eds. Rudy, Jarrett, Gervais, Stéphan, and Kirkley, Christopher. Don Mills, Ont: Oxford University Press, 138.

[3] See also: Bilodeau, Antoine, Luc Turgeon, Stephen White, and Ailsa Henderson. "Strange bedfellows? Attitudes toward minority and majority religious symbols in the public sphere." Politics and Religion 11, no. 2 (2018): 309-333.

[4] Balibar, Etienne. "Dissonances within Laïcité." Constellations 11, no. 3 (2004): 363n4

[5] Potvin, Maryse, Marika Tremblay, Geneviève Audet, and Éric Martin. Les médias écrits et les accommodements raisonnables. L'invention d'un débat. Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles, 2008, 85. <>

[6] Potvin, Maryse. "The reasonable accommodations crisis in Quebec: Racializing rhetorical devices in media and social discourse." International Journal of Canadian Studies 50 (2014): 137-164.