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Secularism bill denounced at multi-faith rally

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People protest Bill 21 in Côte-St-Luc, Que., on April 14. (Janice Arnold photo)

A rally in Côte-St-Luc, Que., to protest Quebec’s proposed secularism legislation had a message for Premier François Legault: we love Quebec, but no one should have to compromise their religious beliefs to work for the province.

Among the close to 20 speakers was Carolyn Gehr, a married Orthodox Jewish woman who is a teacher with the English Montreal School Board (EMSB). She affirmed that she would not – indeed could not – uncover her hair, as she assumes Bill 21 would require her to do.

“The Jewish religion is not about how I feel in my heart; it is 613 commandments and one is that I must walk in public with modesty,” she told the cheering crowd of about 500 who gathered outside Côte-St-Luc City Hall on April 14 for almost two hours.

“I can’t leave my identity at the door and change the way I practise my religion,” Gehr continued, as EMSB chair Angela Mancini stood by her side.

Nor does she want to be restricted to working in private Jewish schools. “I wanted to break out of my little bubble. I feel lucky to work with people who are not exactly like myself,” she said.

Teacher Carolyn Gehr, right, speaks at a rally in Côte-St-Luc, Que., with English Montreal School Board chair Angela Mancini, centre. (Janice Arnold photo)

Mancini reiterated an EMSB resolution that it would not abide by the bill. “It’s contrary to the values of diversity, tolerance and respect for individual rights and freedoms that we teach our students,” she said.

The rally, which was organized by a coalition of West End elected officials from three levels of government, was addressed by five Liberal MPs, suburban and opposition Montreal councillors and Liberal MNA David Birnbaum, along with members of the Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and black communities, as well as numerous legal experts.

While defiant, the overall tone was conciliatory.

The common theme was that the bill is discriminatory and would not stand up to a legal challenge, had that been possible if the Coalition Avenir Québec government had not included the notwithstanding clause in it. They decried that Premier Legault’s oft-stated justification for the law is that the majority of Quebecers want it.

Many spoke of the negative impact on the children of religious minorities who would be denied the hope of equal employment opportunities and get the message that they cannot fully participate in Quebec society.

Birnbaum said this is “a debate about the kind of Quebec we want to leave our children and grandkids.”

The government’s definition of official secularism is a “big fat red herring,” he said. “State neutrality means the state is blind to what (you) believe and how you express that.”

READ: LEVY: BILL 21 TRAMPLES UPON ALL FOUR PRINCIPLES OF STATE SECULARISM

McGill University law dean Robert Leckey said that overriding constitutional rights to rectify “an unproven problem” is worrisome.

The most fiery speech was made by Lionel Perez, the leader of the opposition Ensemble Montréal, who wears a kippah and is the son of immigrants.

“My kippah does not affect at all the way I do my job,” he said. “It is proof that Quebec is open to the world.”

MP Emmanuelle Lambropoulos said that wearing a cross is an imperative for many Greek Orthodox Christians, including her father. The 28-year-old termed the bill “a complete abuse of power” and “a form of segregation that reminds me of a darker time in history that I thought was behind us.”

Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg did not attend the rally because he did not want to be a “distraction.”

For more than a week, Steinberg’s remark that the bill is akin to “peaceful ethnic cleansing” was condemned by politicians of all stripes and received extensive media coverage.

From fellow Coun. Leon Elfassy to Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante to Premier Legault and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, there were calls for him to apologize, which he has refused to do. Steinberg believes the legislation will drive the affected minorities out of the province and hopes to make Quebecers aware of this.

Representing Hampstead, a well-to-do town of less than 8,000, was Coun. Jack Edery, who wears a kippah. He remembered the way he was received by the nuns who then ran the private Marianopolis College, which he attend after going to Jewish day school. “They never made me feel tolerated; they made me feel loved and cared for,” he said. “No one tried to convert me.”

His message to Quebecers is: “Embrace us and we will give you back that love 100 times over.”

Birnbaum urged opponents of the bill to speak to those who feel differently – “be passionate, but civil and reasoned,” he advised

Côte-St-Luc Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, who Mced the event, noted Quebec’s long history of tolerance toward the Jews: it was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to grant them full political rights in 1832.

Among the other speakers were: Tiffany Callender, executive director of the Côte-des-Neiges Black Community Association, Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, and Taran Singh from the Sikh community.