As Bill 21 hearings resume, Montreal to debate police wearing religious symbols

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As Bill 21 hearings resume, Montreal to debate police wearing religious symbols

by - 3 min read

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On the same day representatives from Montreal are set to testify at Quebec’s Bill 21 hearings, city councillors are expected to be forced into their own debate about what police should be allowed to wear on the job.

Coun. Marvin Rotrand, who represents Snowdon, tabled a motion urging Montreal to follow the lead of the RCMP, as well as cities such as Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, in allowing police officers to wear religious clothing and symbols.

Specifically, the motion asks that city council advise the SPVM to “revise its uniform policies so as to allow qualified candidates to serve wearing hijabs, turbans, kippas and other religious coverings.”

“I think it’s important to have the debate,” Rotrand said in an interview. “Montreal is where the minorities are in Quebec. It’s here where the changes have to come from.”

Rotrand, a longtime councillor, has for years been pressing Montreal police to adopt a more open stance toward minorities. 

He sent a letter to the city’s executive committee last year calling for them to make the change. Failing to get a response, he decided to force the issue.

But it’s a coincidence, he said, that the motion has come up for debate on the same day the city is scheduled to present in Quebec City. Montreal was originally scheduled to testify last week.

If passed, Bill 21 would ban public workers in positions of authority, including teachers, lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols.

A chance to ‘make a statement’

Mayor Valérie Plante has been critical of the proposed law and, last month, council unanimously passed a motion condemning it.

But Plante has also said she would comply with the legislation.

Plante’s office did not respond Monday to a request for comment about Rotrand’s motion, while Opposition party Ensemble Montréal declined to comment.

Rotrand wants the SPVM to welcome minorities who wear religious symbols. (CBC)

Rotrand said the city has an opportunity to “make a statement” about where it stands, even if a provincial law will render it meaningless.

“We have more in common with big cities across Canada than we do with the rest of Quebec,” he said, adding that the city needs to do more to make its public employees reflective of the population.

Lack of diversity

The SPVM has struggled to diversify its pool of officers. Only 7.5 per cent are visible minorities, according to its 2017 annual report — far from reflective of the city’s population.

Montreal’s police force hasn’t taken a position on Bill 21. In the past, representatives from the SPVM have said the question of religious symbols is only theoretical, since no one who wears one has applied to work for the force.

The city’s police union has said it’s in favour of the ban.

A ban on police wearing religious symbols is consistent with the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report into the accommodation of minorities.

The report recommended that public workers who exercise the coercive authority of the state be barred from wearing religious garb. But the authors also acknowledged that “a police force is likely to more readily gain the trust of a diversified population if it is diversified and inclusive.”

Charles Taylor, co-author of the Bouchard-Taylor report, spoke last week at the hearings into Bill 21. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Charles Taylor, a prominent philosopher and one of the co-authors of the report, has since backed away from that position.

In 2017, he said the political and social climate in Quebec has changed and the recommendation is no longer required to promote harmony between Quebec’s majority and minority populations.

“We are still waiting for an explanation about why this is necessary,” Taylor said last week, during his testimony at the Bill 21 hearings.

This story originally appeared on CBC

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