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Opponents mark one year since adoption of Quebec's controversial religious symbols law

MONTREAL — Opponents of Quebec's controversial secularism law vowed Sunday to keep up the fight to see it rescinded ahead of the first anniversary of its passing.

MONTREAL — Opponents of Quebec's controversial secularism law vowed Sunday to keep up the fight to see it rescinded ahead of the first anniversary of its passing.

Some of those opposed to the legislation gathered in front of Premier Francois Legault's office in downtown Montreal to denounce Bill 21 as it is known, a law they associate with systemic discrimination.

The legislation — which is the subject of several legal challenges — bars some public-sector employees deemed to be in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols while at work such as turbans, kippas and hijabs.

That group includes teachers, police officers and judges.

Organizers noted the anniversary comes in the midst of a pandemic creating an unprecedented health, social and economic crisis as well a major call to denounce the racism and violence within institutions.

They called on the Quebec government to move away from policies that divide and move to unite the population for the challenges to come.

"It's one year too many," said Hanadi Saad.

For activists who took the microphone on Sunday — a large number of them women — the law is first and foremost another symptom of the systemic racism that exists in Quebec society.

"Law 21 does not protect Quebec's identity, it was created to make religious and racial profiling, particularly towards women, especially Muslim women," Saad said.

Ehab Lotayef, the co-ordinator of a campaign against Bill 21, made a link with Legault's recent assertion that while racism does exist in the province, systemic racism does not.

"The premier denies the existence of systemic racism and at the time he is legalizing systemic discrimination," Lotayef said.

"The fight of rights and equality is not for a certain group and not against a certain group, we are not equal unless we are all equal."

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government has previously defended the secularism law, saying it enjoys strong support among Quebecers and has described it as moderate.

The government invoked closure to adopt the secularism law on June 16, 2019.

A plaintiff in one of the legal challenges spoke Sunday.

Ichrak Nourel Hak wears a hijab, is about to get her teaching degree and wants the right to work in her profession of choice.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Association took up her cause, but the courts declined to grant a stay of the symbols provision and she's waiting for the case to be heard on the merits later this year.

"I can't believe that in 2020, I'm here before you trying to make you understand that my rights are being violated," she said. "I cannot believe that I still have to fight to make it clear that I won't abandon my dream to allay false fears."

Another activist called on those gathered not to give up the fight.

"I want you to join together against this bill, not because you it directly impacts you but because we must have common cause," said Idil Issa, who spoke out against the bill during parliamentary hearings.

"We don't all believe the exact same things, whether you're a Muslim, a Jew, Sikh, atheist — I want you to pull from your traditions, the tradition of justice and come together against this bill and any other unjust law."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2020.

Ugo Giguere, The Canadian Press

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