How Bill 21 Hurts Everyone in Quebec


All the talk about the liberal democratic and human rights concerns over Quebec’s controversial proposed “secularization” law known as Bill 21 has left out the economic reasons it will hurt everyone in the province.

One could hardly argue the law, if passed in its current form, would not be a human rights violation. The law would make it illegal for anyone in a public sector job to wear any visible religious symbols: the hijab and other head coverings that some Muslim women choose to wear; the kippah or yarmulka worn by some Jewish men; the turban that baptized Sikhs are required to wear. All of these things would disqualify someone from working as a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a police officer, a judge, a prosecutor, and from other government jobs. The proposed legislation has a “grandfather clause” to protect people already employed by the government but it would prevent them from transferring to new positions after that. By forcing people to choose between deeply-held religious beliefs and their chosen professions, Bill 21 is by its very nature a human rights violation. That it targets people from specific ethnic groups and specific genders, the law is inherently racist and misogynistic.

Clearly, Bill 21’s closest proponents are aware of this. The current government of François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) promises to invoke Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the infamous “notwithstanding clause” which permits governments to pass laws that violate constitutional rights.

Even leaving that aside, the law harms all citizens of Quebec. Even people who do not wear any religious attire stand to lose their quality of life under Bill 22. It will do this by keeping talented people out of jobs in Quebec where they are needed the most.

Jackie Robinson and Will Rogers

It would help to go back to a couple of famous examples, both sublime and ridiculous.

Jackie Robinson broke professional baseball’s “colour barrier” on April 18, 1946 when he played for the Montreal Royals for the first time. Prior to this date, there had been separate “Negro leagues” for African American players like Robinson, with the rest of pro baseball being all white.

Robinson was a good player, one who likely would have made it to the Hall of Fame without being the first black player in the Major Leagues. Excluding him from the majors effectively would have deprived them of one of the best players in the game at the time. Logically, it follows that some people who would have played in his place were not as good. Excluding black players from baseball diluted the “white leagues” with mediocre players who ought have been replaced by more qualified African Americans.

Comedian Will Rogers inadvertently explained this with mathematical precision. He allegedly said “when the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, they raised the average intelligence level in both states.” This politically incorrect joke assumes the “Okies” were stupid, but still smarter than the typical Californian; that even the stupidest people leaving Oklahoma could make California smarter on average.

Mathematicians found themselves sufficiently intrigued by this joke to come up with the Will Rogers Paradox. They successfully showed that when a below average piece of data moves from one set of data to another data set that happens to have an even lower average, the average of both groups increases.

Jackie Robinson flipped this on its head in baseball. He showed how the best players in the “Negro leagues” could, when moved to a previously all-white league, raise the standard of playing in them. A more modern humourist pointed out that “Babe Ruth had the biggest competitive advantage of all. He didn’t have to play against black people.”

Back to Quebec

That baseball ended its white supremacy problem in Montreal echoes as a loud warning against Bill 21. Consider it as a mathematical puzzle. Assume that the ability to be a good teacher, doctor, nurse, or whatnot is distributed evenly throughout the population as a whole without regard to ethnicity. If all Muslim women in hijabs with medical degrees decided to head down highway 401 to practice medicine in Ontario, then that means the best Quebec Muslim women in the job — who are among the best in the profession in the province overall — will never practice medicine in Quebec.

But medicine, nursing, and teaching are not like baseball. If a baseball team loses its best players, they can always replace them with mediocre or bad ones just so they can have enough of a headcount to keep the team going. There plenty of them to go around. Not so with the professions. It takes 7 to 11 years to become a doctor and getting into medical school in the first place is a feat in itself. Make Muslim doctors who choose to wear hijabs leave Quebec (after all, why stay when Ontario has a doctor shortage?) and Quebec will be left with fewer doctors. Waiting times for medical treatment only recently improved in Quebec. Why reverse the trend?

Multiply this across other affected religious minorities and other professions, and the problem only stands to get worse.

One could argue there are other jobs than the public sector, many of them better. However true that might be, it would ignore how important the public sector is in Quebec. With nearly 220,000 people working government jobs in Quebec, the public sector accounts for roughly 5% of the province’s workforce. That number is not trivial. Moreover, these jobs are unionized, with generous pay and benefits to make them attractive to many people. But back to the original point, that sector serves everyone in Quebec. Excluding people from public service because of their deeply-held religious beliefs when they are otherwise qualified for the job hurts everyone who relies on the public service.

Parents who want the best possible educations for their children only care if their children’s teachers are good teachers, not that the teacher wears a turban. The chest pains felt by a cardiac patient in the ER are life-threatening whether or not the doctor with the defibrillator wears a kippah. And nobody who ever complained about police brutality ever felt it would have been worse if the cop had been wearing a hijab.

Quebec cannot claim to be Canada’s most progressive province until someone’s job skill matters to Quebeckers more than someone’s religion.