MONTREAL—The photograph on the Montreal business school’s website was intended to demonstrate a young woman’s possibility and her academic success.
“A rewarding international presence,” reads the blurb beside the photo, written in a black font to match the black cloth hijab wrapped around the head and neck of the woman’s smiling face.
There is not much more that would stand out as unusual in the promotional image of the Algerian exchange student at the HEC Montréal — an image the school uses to tout its international programs, a deep and important revenue stream for the institution, as it is for most other Canadian universities.
But when Jean-François Lisée, a prominent Quebec academic, writer and former politician, viewed the image last weekend, he saw it not as a ploy by a public institution in search of private funds.
Instead, the former leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois flared at what he took to be a breach of the secular codes that Quebec governments have been trying to establish over the past two decades to separate religion and the state.
Those efforts culminated in 2019 with the passage into law of Bill 21, which enshrines state secularism, mainly by banning public-sector workers from wearing items of religious clothing or decoration, including crucifixes, turbans and hijabs, while at work.
“University students can display their convictions, religious or not,” Lisée wrote on Twitter. “But for a public institution that is by definition secular, pro-science and pro-gender equality to normalize a misogynistic religious sign in an ad is unacceptable.”
The rebuke from a man who has straddled Quebec’s media and political realms for more than 40 years cast the province back into a fraught debate that it cannot seem to resolve.
Increasingly present in the form of turbans, hijabs and kippahs, at least in part due to immigration patterns in the province, many of Quebec’s white, francophone majority would apparently prefer that religion be neither seen nor heard from in the public sphere.
But each instance of religion rearing its head, reigniting the debate over the place of religious expression in a secular society, is like a freshly formed scab over a cut that is pulled away, exposing the wound to the sting of fresh air.
Kimberley Manning calls them “moments of punctuation” that revive the frequently noxious debate that, in her opinion, risks revictimizing religious minorities in Quebec.
“They contribute to and exacerbate an ever-present experience of not being fully Quebeckers,” says the associate professor of political science at Montreal’s Concordia University. “This is what seems to be coming through in the polling and the research.”
Manning has done her own work, notably a March study of students that found feelings of discrimination that respondents linked to the province’s secularism law.
A more extensive study of Bill 21’s impacts in Quebec, released this week, contends that the law has created a frightening, oppressive and grim environment for religious minorities.
In surveys, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims reported a deterioration in their likelihood to participate in social and political life in the province, in their sense of personal safety, and in their confidence for future prospects.
“(The law) promises all kinds of very noble values, and when we measured those up against the results in the study, we see that it doesn’t achieve those values of neutrality, equality and social harmony,” says Miriam Taylor, director of publications and partnerships with the Association of Canadian Studies.
What the law — most any law — does do is normalize and concretize the biases which underpin it, Taylor says.
Survey respondents said they had experienced a rise in verbal abuse, threats and physical confrontations since the law was adopted.
This jibes with anecdotal evidence and a general sense of uncertainty and anxiety in Quebec’s Muslim communities, says Lina El Bakir, Quebec Advocacy Officer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“When you set out a law that is discriminatory, you allow that to permeate society and people’s views,” she says.
“It affects mental health, it affects security, it affects the ability to just be, you know?”
Lisée, who declined an interview request, said in his criticisms that his beef was not with the Algerian exchange student in the hijab, but with the business school.
The website content in question does not breach any aspects of the provincial law, but he said it sends a message to young Algerians standing up to the pressure of imams and fundamentalists that the school “is not your ally.”
An HEC Montréal spokesperson says the only goal of the image was to show off the diversity of its student body, which includes 3,746 international students from 142 countries. The image will come down from the site next week — not because of Lisée’s indignation but because that’s when its previously scheduled two-week publication run ends.
That may come as a relief to the student, who came to Montreal to obtain a business degree and now finds herself in a debate that is part polisci, part sociology — one that has been going on so long that at least part of it belongs to the annals of history.
Speaking to La Presse columnist Rima Elkouri, the 22-year-old, who declined the Star’s interview request, explained she was initially nervous about coming to study in Canada. She had heard about the killing of four members of the Afzaal family of London, Ont., who were run down by the driver of a pickup truck on June 6, 2021, in what police allege was a hate-motivated attack.
But, Nouha, who was identified only by her first name, said she quickly warmed to her new home in Montreal.
“I have never suffered from discrimination or a lack of respect,” she told the Montreal newspaper.
She said that wearing the hijab was a personal decision, not one forced upon her by her family, though she acknowledged the women who have no choice in the matter.
“I’m against that,” she said, adding that she considers herself a feminist.
“I’ve never found (the hijab) to be a symbol that diminishes the value of a woman. Personally, I consider myself to be a very strong woman. In a few years, I’ll be managing a team of workers. I can’t afford to see myself as a weak person.”
She also said she acknowledges and understands the principles of secularism in Quebec.
“I understand that the school must be truly neutral. But from my point of view, it’s also important to display people from minority groups because those minorities look for a place where they feel at peace.”
The issues on display are not going away.
Before the end of the month, Quebec will be into a provincial election campaign and parties have often fallen back on identity issues to stir up the passions of their voters.
Taylor said she worried about the negative consequences of a campaign in which religion and secularism, majority views and minority rights were “instrumentalized for political gain.”
Before the end of the year, Quebec’s court of appeal is expected to hear a legal challenge to Bill 21. And in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has already promised to challenge the provincial secularism law at the Supreme Court.
Taylor’s study found that support for the law among Quebeckers would drop considerably if the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the Constitution.
This bolsters El Bakir’s contention that Quebeckers, like other Canadians, value human rights, despise discrimination and strive for equality.
But she reverts to her native French, and invokes the most Quebecois of expressions, to explain that an older segment of the Quebec population support secularism because they remember when the Catholic Church exerted strict control over all aspects of the province —from schools to hospitals to politics to family life.
“It doesn’t take the head of Papineau!” she says, in reference to Louis-Joseph Papineau, a leader of the rebel Patriote movement in 19th century Lower Canada who was reputed for his intelligence.
“I do understand where older generations are coming from, however societies evolve and we need to understand that realities do change, and one narrative doesn’t always apply.”