Advanced by former Quebec Premier Jean Charest in 2010, Bill 94 is a controversial piece of legislation that effectively revokes fundamental freedoms and rights from those women whose religious beliefs include the wearing of a niqab. More specifically, the bill prohibits face-covering women from giving or receiving government services in the name of “public security, communication, and identification.” Critics have argued that these measures are not motivated by tangible security outcomes, but rather by an irrational distrust of Quebecois-Muslim cultural differences and the government of the day’s desire to assert itself as the final authority on culture.
This distrust of Muslims as Quebec’s cultural “other” is a product of what Edward Said has called “orientalist discourses” – that is, a Western discourse that seeks to culturally juxtapose itself to the orient. Under this view, Bill 94 is an outcome of the orientalist narratives popularized in the post-911 West. These narratives have pervaded public consciousness, and influenced both policy-makers and legislation.
Placing Quebec in its cultural-historical context helps to show how cultural conditions created a context conducive to these narratives gaining traction. Quebec had its origin in the 16th century as a French colony where, absent proper state institutions, the Catholic Church assumed a wide range of authority. Centuries later, as Quebecers began to challenge long-standing religious values, ideas, and institutions, a bourgeoning modern identity was founded on local language and culture. Yet at the same time, Quebec’s minority status in the geographic and cultural landscape of Canada and of the United States fostered an aversion to cultural hegemony. The preservation of the French language and culture in Quebec became and has remained a primary concern for the province. Uncompromising non-conformity has lead Quebec to significant success in resisting the cultural influences present just outside of its borders; however, these same influences have also helped to foster a cultural hypersensitivity in Quebec towards religion and displays of unconformity to cultural norms.
Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration deployed troops to Afghanistan, home to the terrorist organization responsible. The decision was not a hard political sell. However, the subsequent deployment of troops to Iraq, lacking a United Nations sanction, required some moral buttressing. Narratives used to justify this action included the presence of weapons of mass destruction and an aim of rescuing Iraqi society (more specifically, Muslim women) from their fundamentally ‘flawed’ society – an orientalist view. Many have argued that these narratives were advanced solely to justify an American motivation to stabilize their interests in the Middle East.
According to Said, the cultural juxtaposing of Western to Eastern societies is a method used by white men to legitimize imperialist actions. However, the legitimacy of the West’s cultural criticisms of the East are undermined when put in historical perspective; while critiques originally objected to lascivious societies, contemporary narratives are now critical of overly conservative and sexually-constraint societies. A lack of legitimacy of these narratives has made their alienating consequences reprehensible. Such consequences are at play in Quebec – a reality which begs the question of how many within the province came to align themselves morally and politically with such a concept.
Quebec politicians have rarely been reluctant to introduce legislation that protects against perceived threats to the province’s unique values. Given a perceived sense of precarious cultural identity and a history of non-conformity and self-governance, it is not hard to see how Quebec was susceptible to narratives depicting the Muslim as an “other”. Moreover, Quebecers may have felt little moral obligation to uphold Muslim women’s fundamental rights and freedoms to religious practice and expression, as precisely such practices had been popularly constructed – largely, by the American media – as fundamentally at odds with Western society. We might therefore assume that Bill 94’s 90 per cent approval rate is attributable to the minority population whose freedoms it attacked, and in the absence of a significant solidary movement, the proportionately small resistance there was against it.
Ignoring the small population of Quebecers whose freedoms the legislation attacks, Bill 94 is now being revived by current Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. Indeed, the Charest and now Couillard governments’ actions demonstrate that Quebec is more influenced by the orientalist narratives popularized in American media than it feels bound to uphold fundamental rights to religious practice — notwithstanding Canadian official policy of multiculturalism and the freedoms outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Assuming the view of many critics to be true (that Bill 94 was not motivated by tangible security outcomes, but by a desire to control the degree to which foreign culture is able to pervade Quebec society), then its outcome is ironic. If it was, in fact, cultural sovereignty that was at risk, then the game was already lost when American narratives of “unbridgeable [East/West] cultural differences” influenced provincial legislation. It is therefore not the small minority of women whose religious denomination involves the wearing of a niqab that is most threatening to Quebec cultural sovereignty, but the pervasiveness of American cultural hegemony.
Under Bill 94, Muslim women in Quebec will have to choose between practicing their faith and seeking out such government services as medical care and post-secondary education. This relegates those women who will not compromise their faith to higher health-risk profiles and limited upward mobility. Given that structural barriers to these realms have historically been associated with intergenerational inequality, it is only fair to conclude that Bill 94 is not only a xenophobic piece of legislation, but that it is also a sexist and oppressive one with long-term consequences. Legislation that compromises freedoms of religion and expression, as well as the rights of equality and to be free from discrimination, should have no home in Canada.
Bill 94 might have rallied less support if the public had been better informed about its ideological derivation from the orientalist narratives that have been used to justify American imperialism. One might have believed that it would be precisely in the context of a post-Marois Quebec, where Quebec loudly reaffirmed itself as a member of Canada, and more broadly, as a province culturally aligned with Canadian multicultural goals, that such an un-Canadian piece of legislation would be buried. Unfortunately, Premier Couillard does not seem to see the advancement of the legislation to be a political liability — and given Bill 94’s initial approval rate, he is probably correct. If Couillard is successful, we might find Quebec ever so slightly less Canadian, and not any safer or sovereign for it.
Shane Senécal-Tremblay is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, School of Public Policy & Governance. His academic research and policy work has analyzed public health issues, as well as the social and economic determinants of income inequality, Canadian media policy, Quebec politics and sport federation drug policy. Shane will be spending his summer interning at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.