Opinion

The Case for Montreal as City-State

The Quebec government wants to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols. But for one of the world's most tolerant cities, there’s an unlikely way out.

by Matthew Hays
May 21 2019, 3:22pm

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist, academic and the author of 'The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers.'

In the lead-up to the 1995 Quebec independence referendum, the one where almost half of Quebec residents opted to leave Canada, an unusual idea was briefly floated. Amid discussions of partition, some people argued that if Canada was divisible so was Quebec itself, and thus, Montreal should become a sovereign city-state. After the referendum was over and Quebec opted (barely) to remain within Canada, the city-state debate all but died.

But given the Quebec government’s proposed legislation that would ban certain public employees from wearing religious symbols, like hijabs, kippas, or turbans (Bill 21), I would argue it’s time to revisit the idea. While public hearings on Bill 21 continue, it isn’t clear the CAQ government is listening, and it appears the now-tabled bill will almost certainly pass into law in June.

City-states are not the stuff of science fiction. In fact, they work extremely well in the cases of Monaco, Singapore and The Vatican. Given the need to protect many of our most vulnerable citizens—who are literally being told to give up their deeply-held religious and cultural observances or else lose their jobs—we must seriously consider the merits of moving Montreal to city-state status.

Quebec Premier François Legault Legault has repeatedly argued that Bill 21 is supported by a clear majority of Quebec’s citizens. But Bill 21 is a textbook case of majority tyranny. It is supported by people who have little or no first-hand knowledge of the lives of minorities; the proposed legislation is most controversial in Montreal. Mayor Valerie Plante has expressed her opposition to it (and received death threats for having done so). So, the irony: when the bill becomes law, the vast majority of its impact will be felt by citizens of Montreal, the very city whose citizens mainly see through the bill for what it is and sensibly reject it. Worse still, Bill 21 sets an example for other provinces in Canada to trample over the rights of minorities within their own borders, including threatening the rights of francophones.

Legault has insisted that Bill 21 has nothing to do with xenophobia and everything to do with insuring that Quebec remain secular. But that’s tough to believe, when one considers that he and CAQ colleagues campaigned on promises of reducing the numbers of refugees and immigrants allowed to enter Quebec. In this context, Bill 21 simply looks like a larger part of fear-mongering and appealing to the worst instincts of voters.

Fears about CAQ dishonesty only get worse when one considers the party has included a provision to automatically invoke the Notwithstanding Clause (arguably one of the biggest mistakes the authors of Canada's constitution ever made) in Bill 21, allowing them to effectively bypass both the Quebec and Canadian rights Charters. These Charters were specifically created to protect individual rights. We don't have to speculate what the authors of the Notwithstanding Clause intended, as they are still alive and they have indicated that it is being misused. This suggests the authors of Bill 21 know it is an infringement on the individual liberties of Quebec citizens, but don’t care.

Legault and members of his cabinet rise to new heights of absurdity as they ask for debate to remain respectful and for people to listen, as it's obvious they have done neither. During the current hearings over Bill 21, many reasonable points have been made against the bill becoming law. The government has struggled, and largely failed, to make its case.

“History is filled with examples where a majority abused its powers at the expense of its minority,” Gerard Bouchard, who co-authored a 2008 report on how Quebec could reasonably accommodate religious and ethnic minorities, said at the hearings. He added that Bill 21 does not make Quebec look like a “decent society.” Premier Legault has responded that individuals are free to wear religious symbols “on the street,” but not on the job.

Obviously, separating Montreal from Quebec and establish it as a city-state would require hard work and careful negotiation. But democracy is never easy, and there are too many stories of Muslims, Jews and Sikhs who now feel threatened as a result of this utterly ludicrous and unwarranted bill. This is a democracy—when one group of people has their rights threatened or challenged, we are all under attack. While the CAQ won a majority in the provincial election, it’s popularity was overwhelmingly from the suburbs and rural areas, not in Montreal.

To kickstart the movement, a petition signed by Montreal residents demanding a referendum should be launched. If it’s signed by a significant number of Montrealers, it couldn’t be ignored. There would have to be extensive legal consultation as to precisely how a division of powers would play out; if certain suburbs wished to opt out of the new city-state, that would be welcomed. The beauty of such a move would be that there would be no need for the creation of a military or for new passports, as Montreal would remain within Canada. Our healthcare is currently run by the provincial government, but given the dire state of our system, most Montrealers would no doubt welcome new management for the city’s hospitals.

This may sound like an extreme suggestion, but Bill 21 is not only an appalling piece of legislation—it rests almost entirely on fears of those who are different and is a response to problems that don’t actually exist—it’s also a bad omen for the future. This is how the CAQ, a party with very little support in Montreal, proposes to govern us?

Since its Quiet Revolution, Quebec has been one of the most forward-thinking societies in the world, at the vanguard of the rights of women, LGBTQ people and children. Bill 21 represents a dire turn, putting us on the wrong side of history; it is both a terrible piece of legislation, created in bad faith, and is also a clear indication that the CAQ is incapable of governing a modern urban centre and respecting the concerns and rights of its citizens.

It's time to act. Montreal should opt-out of the CAQ’s Quebec.