The two renowned academics whose work served as the intellectual justification for the government's secularism bill came out fiercely against the proposed legislation as hearings began Tuesday.
Philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gerard Bouchard wrote a 2008 report recommending public sector employees wielding coercive authority, such as judges, police officers and prison guards, be prevented from wearing religious symbols on the job.
Premier Francois Legault's government has cited the report as inspiration for Bill 21, which went further by adding teachers to the list of workers in positions of authority.
In his address to the legislature committee studying the bill, Taylor said the bill would "end the careers" of certain people and make it more difficult for them to integrate into Quebec society.
"In a country of immigrants, integration starts at work," he told the committee. "So we are preventing the integration of these people. It will create feelings of alienation and division, and on another level, it will encourage prejudices."
Following the murder of six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque in 2017, Taylor disavowed his earlier position on restricting religious symbols. He now says the debate has led to the stigmatization of religious minorities.
"What I wasn't conscious of at the time," he said, referring to the writing of the 2008 report, "was the hate and opposition movements that existed in our society — and not just Quebec, but in the West. I was very naive, I accept it. He said he changed his mind when he saw the hateful sentiments stimulated by political campaigns focused on the issue of religious symbols.
Taylor said there is a lot of anti-Islam "propaganda" spreading in society, much of it coming from the United States. And instead of fighting that propaganda, Bill 21 "encourages a sense of anti-Islam that is stupid and dangerous," he said.
Bouchard, meanwhile, maintains his 2008 position that public employees such as police officers and prison guards should be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. But he says including teachers goes too far. The Canadian Press obtained a copy of his written brief ahead of his appearance before the committee Wednesday.
In it, Bouchard says the bill is problematic, because it doesn't clearly state who will enforce the rules or what the sanctions will be. Bouchard also criticizes the government's decision to invoke the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to shield the bill from court challenges.
"The government is putting Quebec on a dangerous path," he says.
The historian states the government would avoid many of the problems he outlines if it "limits itself to applying the recommendations" offered in the 2008 report he wrote with Taylor.
Earlier on Tuesday, the committee heard from Ferid Chikhi, representing an association of secular North Africans. He called women who wear the hijab "extremists."
"They wear it either because they are activists," he said, "or because of ignorance, or because, unfortunately, they were born into political Islam."
The hearings opened with a series of women celebrating the government's legislation as an advance for feminism and suggesting it should go further.
Diane Guilbault, president of the feminist group Pour les droits des femmes du Quebec, said Quebec should enshrine into law a separation of church and state in order to protect the rights of women.
Guilbault and her organization represent a strain of feminism in Quebec closely aligned with the province's nationalist and language-based political movements. They stand in contrast to other activists who criticize Bill 21 for targeting minorities such as Muslim women who wear the hijab.
Organizations representing Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians held a news conference in Montreal claiming the government ignored their requests to appear before the committee.
"The fact that we are not even invited to the consultations means that our opinion for them is not even valid," said Sara Abou-Bakr, spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
The committee did hear Tuesday from Djemila Benhabib, an outspoken critic of Islam, who said any woman who refuses to take off her hijab to work in the public service is a "fundamentalist."
The hijab is "sexist," she said, and it has no place in government institutions such as schools or daycares. "How can schools accept sexist symbols when their mission is to promote equality between men and women?" she asked.
Benhabib and Louise Mailloux, representing a group that describes itself as a collective for equality and secularism, joined Guilbault in telling committee members to expand the legislation. They said it's inconsistent for the government to ban public school teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job but not extend the restrictions to daycare workers, they said.
The government has set aside six days for public consultations on its bill. The ruling Coalition Avenir Quebec and the Parti Quebecois favour restrictions on religious symbols including the hijab, kippa, turban and cross, while the two other parties with seats in the legislature — the Liberals and Quebec solidaire — are opposed.
Fractures have begun to appear in the Liberal caucus on the issue, however, following the party's election loss in October and its poor showing among francophone voters. Potential leadership candidates have begun suggesting the Liberals should accept some additional restrictions on religious symbols.