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January 2020: Servatius v. Alberni School District
The city of Port Alberni, British Columbia is located on traditional Nuu-chah-nulth territory. During the 2015-2016 school year, a (...)

  • January 2020: Servatius v. Alberni School District

The city of Port Alberni, British Columbia is located on traditional Nuu-chah-nulth territory. During the 2015-2016 school year, a Nuu-chah-nulth Elder visited an elementary school in the Alberni School District to demonstrate a smudging ceremony in three different classrooms. The Elder first explained the smudging ceremony to students, which included an abalone shell, sage and an eagle feather, as well as its associated beliefs. Students also later watched a hoop dance at an assembly during which a prayer was said by the dancer. Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian with a daughter and son at the school, expressed concern that her children were forced to participate in these Indigenous practices. She argued that the smudging ceremony and prayer infringed upon their right to religious freedom under Section 2(a) the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In its decision for Servatius v. Alberni School District (2020), the British Columbia Supreme Court concluded that students were not compelled to participate in the demonstrations, nor did these interfere with the school’s duty of religious neutrality. The Court stated: “When arrangements are made for Indigenous events in its schools, even events with elements of spirituality, the School District is not professing or favouring Indigenous beliefs. Educators are holding these events to teach about Indigenous culture, and to introduce students to Indigenous perspectives and worldviews” (Alberni at para. 85). Accordingly, the students’ freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion, was not infringed upon by the smudging ceremony nor the hoop dancer’s prayer. Students were not participating in the practices, but witnessing them as part of a curriculum that integrates local Indigenous culture and history.

In its decision the Court recognized the colonial context of the events that led to this case. It referenced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) findings about church-led residential schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend as part of a coherent government policy of assimilation. The Court also referred to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, a party to the case that “advocates for cultural inclusiveness in schools as a crucial part of changing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians on the basis that ‘people cannot honour difference if they cannot understand it’” (Alberni at para. 25). Overall, the Alberni case reflects the ongoing impacts of colonialism in Canada and efforts to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As the TRC notes in its final report, education plays a key role in this process.

Full citation: Servatius v. Alberni School District No. 70, 2020 BCSC 15.

D 13 July 2021    ALauren Strumos


August 2019: The report of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ)
In August 2019, the CDPDJ produced a report entitled Xenophobic and Notably Islamophobic (...)

  • August 2019: The report of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ)

In August 2019, the CDPDJ produced a report entitled Xenophobic and Notably Islamophobic Acts of Hate, which aims to draw a portrait of the situation in Quebec with respect to hateful acts. According to the report, among the 86 victims of hateful acts interviewed for the study, each respondent experienced an average of three hateful acts, 35% of victims had to change their lifestyle habits and 78% of the acts suffered were not reported to a competent authority (p.10). Several effects of the acts suffered were identified: fear and anxiety, loss of confidence, isolation, depression, humiliation, feelings of exclusion and the desire to leave Quebec. In addition, the report makes several recommendations (pp.27-30) to address the reasons for not reporting an act, including lack of knowledge of the laws and recourses, poor perception of police officers, discouragement, migration status and lack of confidence in the system.

See also the article "Interreligious relations - Hate Crimes in Quebec".

Bertrand Lavoie

  • June 2019 - Secularism Act

The National Assembly of Quebec has adopted the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State on June 6, 2019 (see Law and religion > General presentation).

Context of enactment
The Act was adopted in the Quebec context of debates on reasonable accommodation (see Reasonable Accommodation). The Act follows two previous bills, namely Bill 94, introduced in 2011, which provides a framework for accommodation requests and prohibits the concealment of the face in public services, and Bill 60, introduced in 2013, which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols for all government employees. None of these bills were passed due to changes in government. The Act also follows the Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality, adopted in 2018, which provides a framework for requests for reasonable accommodation.

Three (3) challenges have been filed in the Quebec courts, one by Coalition Inclusion Québec (an immigrant rights activist association), one by the English-Montreal School Board (Montreal’s English-language network of elementary and secondary schools) and one by Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (a teachers’ union). Among other things, these challenges present documented evidence on the numerically greater presence of Muslim women wearing the hijab who would be affected by the State’s Secularism Act. Other challenges have at the same time been filed in the courts to immediately suspend the application of the Act, without success.

Bertrand Lavoie

  • June 2019: Québec, between "laïcité" and religious neutrality

Following the adoption of a Bill of law on laïcité in Quebec, in June 2019, this document summarizes the significance and origin of the debate. As is the case in many areas of the world, for nearly twenty years Quebec has been stirred up by public debates about new waves of migration and certain religious minorities. The concept of "open laïcité" made its distinct appearance, in 1999, in a report on religion at school which was commissioned by the Government of Quebec. Laïcité would only begin to be discussed publicly a few years later, in 2007-2008, in connection with the virulent debate about reasonable accommodations.

Open laïcité in school

In 1999, a study committee on religion at school, chaired by journalist and professor Jean-Pierre Proulx, published a report entitled Religion in Secular Schools. A New Perspective for Québec. The Proulx Report proposed the concept of open laïcité as the normative framework of its proposal for cultural teaching of religion, but very little of its content was developed. This was a proposal to deconfessionalize the public education system (primary and secondary levels), while maintaining teaching about religious cultures. It is for this reason that laïcité is said to be "open", distinct from the system in France which does not include any specific teaching about religion. Before the Proulx report, primary and secondary schools offered the option of Catholic, Protestant or moral education, in addition to pastoral care. Following the publication of the report, a government commission led to the deconfessionalization of the school system. Pastoral care gave way to spiritual care and community involvement programs, and the options for moral and religious education were replaced by a single compulsory program called Ethics and Religious Culture (see entry EUREL), in both public and private schools.

Open laïcité and reasonable accommodations

The debate on laïcité deepened when the legal concept of reasonable accommodation to religious requests, applied in Canada since a Supreme Court judgment in 1985, gave rise to media controversy. The outcry was such that it spawned another commission in 2007, known by the name of its co-chairs, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor (Building the Future 2008). Including about 300 pages and dozens of recommendations, the report suggested a project of open laïcité, defining it generally as a search for balance between rights. In the few pages defining it, Bouchard and Taylor distinguished it from the regimes imposing “fairly strict limits on freedom of religious expression”, citing France and its policies prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols at school (p. 20). Generally, the report suggested increasing state neutrality by limiting religious expressions and symbols in the political arena, preserving cultural religious heritage elements, and honouring jurisprudence on reasonable accommodation, with respect for certain ethical and cultural limits. In addition, it recommended the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols to a limited number of persons exercising specific powers of coercion.

Subsequently, there were no fewer than four controversial bills following this 2008 report. The first two failed because of a lack of consensus. The first, proposed by a federalist liberal government in 2011, was Bill n° 94: An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions. A minority Parti Québécois government (a separatist party) proposed the second, in 2013, entitled Bill n° 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. The next two bills would be adopted.

When the Liberal government took over, it again introduced a bill on reasonable accommodation. In October 2017, the government passed Bill n° 62: An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies. Groups challenging section 10, which forces individuals to give or receive services with “their faces uncovered”, were successful, resulting in the suspension of its application by the Superior Court of Quebec. It is difficult to impose such restrictions in Canada under the charters of rights and freedoms.

Another change of government occurred when the party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ, a party presenting itself as pragmatic federalist, but which is very nationalist) whose leader was a PQ minister, was elected for the first time. On March 28, 2019, the CAQ filed Bill n° 21: An Act respecting the laicity of the State. In order to bypass the charters of rights and recourse to the courts, this project provided for the use of the “notwithstanding or derogation clause” (section 33). This use is provided for in the Canadian Constitution:

“Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter (33.1); A declaration made under section (1) shall cease to have effect five years after it comes into force or on such earlier date as may be specified in the declaration (33.3); Parliament or the legislature of a province may re-enact a declaration made under section (33.4)”.

While all four bills addressed several issues related to reasonable accommodations, the debates focused solely on the wearing of religious symbols. The Liberal party, both in 2011 and in 2017, limited the ban to having the “face covered”. The Parti Québécois and the CAQ imposed a ban on a large number of public servants. Bill 21 presented by the CAQ did not go as far as the PQ on this point, but its appendix II listing the public functions concerned was very thorough and included primary and secondary teachers, the most controversial aspect. The CAQ argued that all those functions exercise a certain power of ‘coercion’, referring to the Bouchard-Taylor report (in fact extending this concept to several more functions than the report itself did). The use of the derogation clause suggested that no legal action would be able to contest the applications of Bill 21. At the time of writing this text, however, the project has already been challenged in court. A long judicial battle is on the horizon, and adversaries will certainly go to the UN if necessary. If the CAQ dreams of reproducing the French Republican model on this issue, the North American context and its rather flexible uses of freedom of conscience and religion pose obstacles to a prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols, which would not be without deep controversy.

To conclude, we could make two points. First, parties characterized by their more assertive and identity nationalism include the concept of laïcité in their Bills. The Liberal Party uses the concept of “religious neutrality”, more in tune with the Canadian legislative context. Secondly, while the Bills deal with several aspects of the management of reasonable accommodation requested by individuals for religious reasons, the public debates focus mainly on the symbolic and sartorial aspects, as was the case in France, notably in the context of the Stasi Commission.

- Bouchard G., Taylor C., Building the future. A times for Reconciliation, Consultation Commission on accommodation practices related to cultural differences, 2008.
- Lefebvre, S. et al. (ed.) 2018 Dix ans plus tard : La commission Bouchard-Taylor, succès ou échec ?, Montréal : Québec Amérique, pp. 75-86.
- Lefebvre, S. et al. (2017) Public Commissions on Cultural and Religious Diversity: Analysis, Reception and Challenges, UK: Routledge.
- Proulx J.-P., Study committee on religion at school, Religion in Secular Schools. A New Perspective for Québec, Québec : Minister of Education, Government of Québec, 1999.
- Several public documents can be downloaded on the directory PLURI.

Solange Lefebvre

D 4 July 2019    ABertrand Lavoie ASolange Lefebvre


October 2017: Case Study: Zunera Ishaq v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province, Quebec, passed a bill in October 2017 banning people from (...)

  • October 2017: Case Study: Zunera Ishaq v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province, Quebec, passed a bill in October 2017 banning people from having their faces covered when asking for or receiving public services. This bill targets the wearing of the full-face veil in the jurisdictions. However, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said that Bill 62 does not specifically target religious symbols, because the law would apply, for example, to the hood, bandana or opaque glasses that would mask the face. The question of the full veil had already been raised in Canada.

On November 16th, 2015 Canada became the first western democracy to legally withdraw a ban against face-coverings specifically the niqab (face-covered except eyes) during the oath of citizenship. Canada’s Attorney General and Justice Minister, the Honourable Jody-Wilson Raybould formally retracted the application of appeal by the former Conservative government to the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration v. Zunera Ishaq thus, ending a four-year (2011-2015) unlegislated policy guideline.

The affair started on December 12, 2011, when Canadian Immigration, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney announced that the Conservative Government was placing a ban on all face coverings during the oath of allegiance at Canadian citizenship ceremonies (see CBC). The Conservative government’s rationale was that an oath of citizenship is a public act of devotion and loyalty to Canada in front of one’s fellow citizens and as such cannot be taken by hiding one’s face. The ban was implemented as an immediate directive under Operation Bulletin 359 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada (“CIC”), Operational Bulletin 359. CIC policy manual CP 15: Guide to Citizenship Ceremonies (the “Manual”)), which hastened the ban and extracted it from the legislative process and political representative debates.

On December 30th, 2013 a citizenship judge approved prospective Canadian citizen Zunera Ishaq’s application for citizenship. On January 14, 2014 Ms. Ishaq was due to recite her oath of citizenship. According to the guidelines in the Citizenship and Immigration Policy Manual (section 6.5 of the Manual [the Policy] “candidates wearing face coverings are required to remove their face coverings for the oath taking portion of the ceremony”). Ms. Ishaq objected to this requirement and maintained that her religious beliefs obligate her to wear the niqab in public. She argued that the Government’s policy infringed on paragraph 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which affirms the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion. Ms. Ishaq filed for judicial review.

On February 6th 2015, Federal Court judge Keith Boswell ruled in Ms. Ishaq’s favor and deemed that the Government’s ban against wearing the niqab during the oath of allegiance at the Canadian citizenship ceremony as unlawful. Judge Boswell stated that the Government’s 2011 guideline, conflicted with current Citizenship Regulations that citizenship judges are to administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity that allows for the greatest possible religious freedom in the religious solemnization or solemn affirmation thereof. Moreover, Judge Boswell asked, how can a citizenship judge afford the greatest respect of the religious solemnization or solemn affirmation in taking the oath, if the policy requires the candidate to violate or renounce a basic tenet of their religion? On March 9th 2015, lawyers for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration filed a notice with the Court of Appeal to appeal the ruling (see National Post). They claimed that a Federal judge had committed several errors in fact and law. On September 15th 2015, in the judgment under appeal between the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and Zunera Ishaq, the Attorney General of Ontario sided with the Canadian Federal Court decision that overturned the Conservative government’s ban against the wearing of face-coverings during the oath of allegiance at Canadian citizenship ceremonies (Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Ishaq, 2015 FCA 194). The former Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his government’s appeal of the “niqab ban” by laying bare an exclusive ideal of what kind of Canadian had the “right” values. Many Canadians listened with discomfort to a sitting Prime Minister call their fellow Canadians who wear the niqab “offensive,” had values (although guaranteed in section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) that conflict with Canadian values.

On October 19th 2015 in Canada’s forty second General election Canadians elected a new Liberal Government. In her first act as Canada’s Attorney General and Justice Minister, the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould formally and legally retracted the 2011-2015 “niqab ban” (see CBC) declaring that the retraction was a symbol of the values that make us Canadians, those of diversity, inclusion and respect for those fundamental values.

D 15 February 2018    AZaheeda Alibhai


December 2017: Religion and sexuality: recent controversies in Canada
Although opposition to sexual equality rights (such as abortion, same-sex marriage, sex workers’ rights) is not confined to (...)

  • December 2017: Religion and sexuality: recent controversies in Canada

Although opposition to sexual equality rights (such as abortion, same-sex marriage, sex workers’ rights) is not confined to individuals or groups who identify as religious, frequently the loudest voices heard in public debates and legal controversies are those claiming opposition based on religious freedom rights.

The organization of opposition to constitutional and legislative change often is represented by specific religious groups, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Muslim and Orthodox Jews. Particularly in relation to legal changes, such as the redefinition of marriage from heterosexual (one man and one woman) to include same-sex couples (two persons), groups such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Interfaith Coalition on Marriage and Family are frequently named interveners in the legal disputes, although other groups (i.e. REAL Woman of Canada) are also vocal about their positions, whether on their websites or in media interviews.

Members of religious organizations do not always conform to the doctrine of their religious tradition; frequently lived religious practice and official teaching diverge from one another, often on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Importantly, the organization and dominance of particular religious voices in opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, access to abortion or the rights of sex workers’ misses two very important issues.

First, many religious individuals and groups have been actively fighting to support the rights of sexual minorities, access to abortion services for women and the rights of sex workers. For example, in the Ontario civil union case, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto specifically argued that the inability to perform same-sex marriages violated their religious freedom rights; see Halpern v Canada, [2003] OJ No 2268 [Ontario Court of Appeal].

Further, in an open letter submitted to the justice committee in response to Bill C-36, the legislation developed by the government after the Bedford case, dozens of Anglican clergy argued that the proposed law is immoral and would pose risks to sex workers’ safety (see “Anglican Clergy call prostitution bill immoral,” Maclean’s, Rachel Browne, 2014).

Oppositional attitudes to these particular debates are seen outside religious groups and attitudes, and in fact restrictive, oppositional viewpoints are witnessed in daily expressions of discrimination as experienced by women who seek abortions (or who argue that access to abortion ought to be more widely available), sexual minorities and same-sex couples, and sex workers (see Catherine G Taylor & Tracey Peter, et al, Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011).

Consequentially, perceptions about religious identity are often that religion ‘inherently’ opposes sexually diverse identities, access to abortion or sex workers rights and further ties religiosity to conservative (negatively connoted) identities. This public perception frames religion and sexuality as opponents, whereby to be religious is to be anti-X (LGBTQI, feminist) and to be LGBTQI, feminist, sex worker or seeking an abortion is to be anti-religious.

See a list of relevant decisions.

D 7 December 2017    AHeather Shipley

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