The city of Montreal told the provincial government that its proposed ban on religious symbols is needlessly divisive and an attack on the respect of minority rights.

Mayor Valerie Plante knows the CAQ government will plow ahead with Bill 21, but said the legislation will target Montreal and its residents much more than other regions of the province

Before testifying in front of MNAs on Tuesday Plante published an open letter opposing Bill 21 pointing out that Quebec's laws are already secular.

"What I want is to influence the bill at this point. How about we see it differently? How about we begin with the principle that Quebec is a secular state and that it is okay this way and that all the institutions and laws are so strong that we don't have to go against individual freedoms and liberties and rights?" said Plante.

She warned the CAQ government that its proposal risks destroying the social fabric of the province by pitting the fears of the majority against the rights of the minority because it will exclude citizens from exercising their constitutional rights and participating fully in society.

"Ultimately, I consider it our duty to protect the minorities of which our society is made, whether they are sexual, linguistic, cultural or religious. I strongly believe that diversity, in whatever form, contributes to our society," wrote Plante.

Plante is also concerned that declaring the law will use the notwithstanding clause right off the bat is a sign the bill is weak and is unable to resist legal challenges.

"The possibility of using the notwithstanding clause at the beginning to me is not how it should be done," said Plante.

She said that allowing laws to be challenged in court is a fundamental freedom in Canada.e


English School Boards say Bill 21 won't apply to them

Bill 21 "is an unnecessary piece of legislation that can only lead to societal discrimination," said Russell Copeman, the head of the Quebec English School Boards Association.

QESBA is joined by other teachers' groups that say a ban on teachers wearing religious symbols is only going to cause hate and mistrust.

The association also pointed to legal precedent, the Supreme Court decision Mahe vs. Alberta.

QESBA said its interpretation of that ruling means provincial governments cannot interfere with the hiring practices of minority-language school boards

"Quebec trying to impose a ban on religious symbols for teachers is in our view inconsistent with this judgment," said Copeman.

"By virtue of section 23, we believe that Bill 21 is an infringement on this decision and on the constitutional rights of the English-speaking community, and therefore the government of Quebec cannot legislate or regulate in this field."

The Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers believes the bill makes a dangerous assumption that people who express their religious faith cannot be neutral, and can only be a negative influence.

"I have two children, two boys. They were both taught by a teacher who wore a hijab. She was a science teacher, and that's what she taught. She taught science and that was it. She's an excellent science teacher," said Heidi Yetmen.

Copeman also said the CAQ's immediate resort to the notwithstanding clause makes the bill look unjustifiable.

"If they're on such sound legal ground, why are they invoking the notwithstanding clause?" said Copeman.


Sociologist worries about rise of fundamentalism

A sociologist who helped investigate the school system in Quebec in the 1960s testified Tuesday morning that he thinks a lack of a complete ban on religious symbols could lead to the flourishing of religious schools.

Guy Rocher, a professor emeritus at the University of Montreal, said that the Catholic Church could reclaim its dominance over Quebec Society unless banned by law.

"If we do not adopt [Bill 21], we will be in a very worrying dynamic for the future, that is to say, we could progressively 'reconfessionalize' the public school system and public institutions. Because if we allow ostentatious religious symbols to be worn by people, we might as well allow crucifixes to be installed, and statues to be installed," said Rocher.

Rocher said that while people worry now about Islam, in the past people worried about the power of Jehovah's Witnesses and other religions.

He did admit that there was no proof that religious signs had any influence on people and children, especially when it was pointed out that a crucifix has been hanging in the main room of the National Assembly since the 1930s.

The hearings wrap up Thursday and the provincial government wants to enact the legislation in the coming weeks.