Religious discrimination by government denounced at AGM

  • February 20, 2020

Nine resolutions were up for debate at the 2020 AGM in Ottawa. Seven have been passed as official CBA policy, with two tabled for next year.

After hearing deeply personal stories about the impacts of Quebec’s Bill 21, CBA members passed a resolution to denounce any law that uses religion to deny individuals equal opportunities within the legal profession or to have access to it.

The resolution, brought forward by the Constitutional and Human Rights Section, also called on the CBA to affirm its commitment to religious equality and diversity, and to combat any religious discrimination within the legal profession and against lawyers based on their religious beliefs. It urges all governments and regulatory bodies to respect and uphold the equal treatment of all members of the legal profession.

Speaking from Montreal, Nour Farhat, the seconder of the motion, described how she has been a lawyer since 2017 and completed a Master’s in Criminal Law in 2019 intending to become a Crown prosecutor.

“However, I’m a Muslim woman, and I wear a headscarf,” Farhat said. Under the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, passed by the Quebec government in 2019, she cannot wear religious symbols and work as a Crown prosecutor – or as a lawyer in any Quebec ministry.“The consequences of Bill 21 on my life and career, my ambition, is massive and honestly, truly devastating. This discrimination and this violation of human rights should never happen,” Farhat said.

She is currently working in the private sector and grateful to be with her firm. “However, this choice for me to work in the private sector wasn’t mine. It was enforced by my government.”

Sameha Omer, director of legal affairs at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, also spoke. “My headscarf is not a religious symbol or an everyday wardrobe decision. It represents my faith. It is part of my identity, and it goes to the core of who I am and what I believe.”

Arguing in favour of the resolution, Omer called Bill 21 “one of the most significant attacks on civil liberties in Canadian history.”

“In the name of the government’s view of laicity, it attempts to create a state religion of secularism whose purpose and effect is to deny certain Quebeckers, including many lawyers, the right to be themselves and to practice.”

CBA-Quebec board member Steeves Bujold and CBA-Quebec President Pascale Pageau also spoke in favour of the resolution. They cited the Quebec branch’s opposition to Bill 21 dating to April 2019.

A related resolution calling on the CBA to update all internal bylaws and policies to explicitly include religion in any list of enumerated grounds pertaining to equality, diversity or inclusion was tabled.

Among the other proposed resolutions, a couple sparked vigorous debate.

A resolution calling on federal, provincial and territorial governments to establish guidelines for the use of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was approved. Several members spoke against it, arguing that the CBA should not involve itself in a debate about such a political matter. Former CBA President Fred Headon countered that the CBA should not be shy about stepping into the debate on the proper parameters for the use of constitutional tools.

Also up for debate was a resolution to adopt a definition of climate justice. It proposed that the CBA consider climate justice and the impacts of climate change in its various submissions on potential law reform. Though initially, it appeared the resolution had been defeated, it came to light that some members encountered technical difficulties casting their votes -- enough so that it may have affected the outcome. The CBA’s Board of Directors decided to nullify the climate leadership resolution and retable it for the next AGM. 

Members also passed resolutions calling for:

  • Amending the Department of Justice Act to refer explicitly to the constitutional independence of the Attorney General in prosecutions and that any advice given by the AG to Cabinet must be apolitical. (Criminal Justice Section)
  • Amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Citizenship Act to define the practice of immigration law. The resolution also calls for the repeal of the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants Act, which the federal government passed in 2019. (Immigration Law Section)
  • Urging the federal government, the provinces and territories to pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and consult with Indigenous communities to develop plans that achieve the declaration’s objectives. (Aboriginal Law Section)
  • Urging governments to create or enhance triage and referral systems for alternative dispute resolution and to resource these programs properly. (National ADR Section)
  • Calling on the federal government, the provinces and the territories to maintain an adequate cohort of lawyers in the public sector. (Public Sector Lawyers Section)

Read the resolutions