Hunger strikes challenge religious symbols law; Premier unconcerned
Published Wednesday, June 19, 2019 1:42PM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, June 19, 2019 6:27PM EDT
Protesters gathered outside Premier Francois Legault's office at noon Wednesday to begin a series of hunger strikes against controversial legislation.
May Chiu, lawyer and spokesperson for the group Progressive Chinese of Quebec, is calling on Quebecers to join her and others in denouncing Bill 21 and Bill 9, laws that were forced through the legislature this past weekend to restrict immigration and to ban the wearing of religious symbols by many government workers.
"We need to do something to empower people. We need to do something to make people know that they can also act," said Chiu.
She said the legislation will increase discrimination against minorities and will affect women's freedom, since women who wear hijabs are targeted by the bill and will have a harder time finding employment.
Because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms says the freedom to practice religion is a fundamental right in Canada, the legislation for Bill 21 invoked the notwithstanding clause, which is itself only valid for five years.
Court challenges to other aspects of the law are already underway, but Chiu said that citizens have other ways to fight.
"A lot of people think that when the notwithstanding clause is invoked we have no more recourses. And we're here to say no, we have our bodies, we have our words, we have our legs, we will demonstrate, we will take all kinds of civil actions to continue to protest this extremely unjust law," said May Chiu.
She is leading a group of people who are camping outside the premier's offices in downtown Montreal and who will be fasting for one to five days at a time.
"I'm a lawyer but I'm also an activist and for me just to sit on my hands and not act and to wait for the results of long court decisions, or long court procedures, it doesn't sit well with me," said Chiu.
One protester who wears a headscarf said Quebecers should join them before they are targeted.
"I think it's time we all stand up. I don't think this is just a matter of people who live in Quebec or even the minorities that are affected by it. But I think everyone should think about it. Just because it's one group right now that doesn't mean that at another point there won't be other people that are affected by it," said Sauleha Farouk.
She added that for many families, the legislation mean fewer opportunities.
"Not having the ability to pursue specific employment options means losing that dual income," said Farouk, which led to the motivation for the hunger strike.
"If the government is going to be taking food away from those Quebecers, they're going to take food away from themselves to show support for those people affected."
Legault was calm and relaxed as he arrived at a cabinet meeting in Quebec City on Wednesday.
He repeated the talking points he had used many times in previous months, namely that Quebecers are in favour of banning government workers from wearing religious symbols.
Legault also said that by catering to the fears of the majority, Bill 21 and Bill 9 would stop hardcore right-wing extremists.
"If we don't do so, we've seen, for example, Mme (Marine) Le Pen in France. I think we don't want to have this kind of party, this kind of group, this kind of extremism, so if we want to avoid extremism, I think we have to put some rules. That's what we did with Bill 21," said Legault.
Although he said over the weekend that he expected the passage of Bill 21 would put the reasonable accommodation debate to bed, he was unconcerned about the court challenges.
"I expected that. I expected that some people would like that we have a situation like in the rest of Canada which is to permit everything for everybody. We decided to have more the model of France, Germany, and Belgium. Of course all models will be criticized, but what I've seen since Sunday is that the vast majority of Quebecers are happy, and I hope we'll be able to spend more time talking about education, healthcare, and the economy which are the real priorities of all Quebecers, including minorities," said Legault.
The provincial government is expected to hold another cabinet meeting next week before politicians spend the summer in their ridings meeting with voters.
Maya Johnson and Annie DeMelt contributed to this report