Image: Flickr/amirhasan-dehghani/

Last year, the Values Charter plunged Québec into a bitter identity debate. Presented by the Parti Québecois, the Charter sought to make Québec a more secular state. Not by removing the hundreds of saints’ names that grace the province’s map but, in part, by policing how people dress. It was supposed to forbid religious adherents from wearing their religious symbols at work, if they worked in the public or parapublic sectors.

This meant that any Muslim woman who wore hijab would be forced to choose between employment or devotion. But it wasn’t racist legislation, promised Bernard Drainville. They would also target kippa-wearing Jews and the oh-so popular huge crucifix that many devout Catholics still like to rock.

You know the rest of the story: the PQ called an election over this issue to win a majority, lost and delivered our government back to the bloodthirsty (in the killing-of-social-programs sense) hands of the Liberals.

The debate was a classic example of the State trying to limit the freedom of expression of a minority of its citizens. A minority of its minority citizens, to be precise.

While many Quebecers opposed the Values Charter, it was rarely discussed as a matter of freedom of expression. Xenophobic. Racist. Sexist. Divisive. But what right to free expression do Hijabis have in Drainville’s Québec?

The idea to ban religious garb was influenced by debates that have raged in France.

In 2011, the French government banned women from covering their face in public. France, a country with a brutal colonial relationship to many predominantly Muslim countries, chose Muslim women as its target in a state version of What Not to Wear.

The ban remains controversial. Eight percent of French citizens are Muslim and while a majority of that population would never wear the niqab, the message it sends is that women who do are religious extremists.

Last October, the Bastille Opera refused to play because a niqabi sat in the second row.

The face-cover ban should be controversial. Every defender of free expression in the Western world should have mounted fierce opposition to the ban as it encroaches on women’s right to free expression. 

But the fight for Free Speech waged by most Canadian pundits isn’t a fight that includes women. It’s one of the few struggles that white men with access to both power and privilege can wage demanding even more privilege, without criticism. There is no universal access to free speech and free expression in an unequal society.

When a gunman murdered 14 people for political reasons in Montreal in 1989, it was condemned not as an attack on free speech, but as a horrifying example of violence against women.

When gunmen murdered 12 people for political reasons in Paris in 2014, there was a global cry condemning the attack for being a vicious affront to free speech.

Free speech can only be protected or removed by the state. Terrorist elements, assassins, gunmen or gunwomen can attack people for their political expression, but it’s the state that has a responsibility to protect these people from reprisal. The writers and offices of Charlie Hebdo were given such protections.

Michel Houellebecq, French author has since been placed under police protection, fearing that his next book will make him a target for an attack too.

So what state protections have there been for Muslim women who believe their faith demands they cover their faces? Why is their freedom of expression less important? Where’s the global outrage over the fact that pro-Palestinian protests been banned by the state of France? If violence against women is a tool meant to silence them (either through fear or murder), why do Western states consistently fail to keep women safe?

In the wake of the murder at the Charlie Hebdo offices, many pundits have reduced freedom of speech to fighting for the privileged to mock the oppressed. The greatest free speech advocates in Canada, the ones who rush to spew odes to freedom across whichever opinions sections, so often ‘forget’ to condemn attacks on freedom of speech when they happen to non-white, non-male people.

Imagine Ezra Levant condemning Harper’s political audit of many progressive organizations, including the CCPA and PEN Canada (whose primary goal is to fight for free expression).

Imagine every single Canadian newspaper running editorials demanding justice for Indigenous women, based on the premise that the violence waged against them are attacks on their free speech and expression.

Imagine journalists collectively demanding that the state not only protect, but ensure stable funding mechanisms, free of political interference, to allow for the news industry to engage in investigative reporting or to hire more journalists.

But no, these free speech defenders only appear when 12 people, 11 of whom were men, are murdered, focusing solely on some inflammatory cartoons about Islam. The defenders demand that people change their twitter avatars to the inflammatory comics. They reduce free speech to the right to publish (and republish in “solidarity”) a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad’s anus.

Freedom of speech is extremely important and must be defended, and equal access to freedom of speech is not a struggle that exists in isolation. It includes the freedom for everybody to choose their own clothing. It includes the freedom to live without fear that your partner will murder you in your home.

Until the fight for Freedom of SpeechTM is wrestled away from the old white men whose names grace the opinion pages of Canada’s national newspapers, this campaign will only seek to give more rights to the already privileged while ignoring (and in some cases, further oppressing) the freedom of speech of the oppressed.

We need to move beyond the freedom for members of the privileged class to debase, mock or insult the oppressed and towards fighting for all people to have equal and protected access to these freedoms.


Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...