MONTREAL — A new poll suggests support may have slipped for a key element of Quebec’s secularism law, known as Bill 21.
A web panel survey carried out by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies earlier this month found 55 per cent of Quebecers are in favour of banning religious symbols being worn by public school teachers.
That appears to be a drop from the results of a previous Leger survey published in September that found 64 per cent of Quebecers were in favour of Bill 21, which applies to civil servants in positions of authority including judges, teachers, and police officers.
Jack Jedwab, the president of the Association for Canadian Studies, says the seeming shift in public opinion could be tied to recent debate on the issue, including the case of an elementary school teacher in western Quebec who was removed from her teaching position in December because her hijab contravenes the law.
The incident prompted calls for the federal government to intervene in court challenges against the law and spurred the mayors of several large cities to pledge their support to the legal battle to overturn it.
The survey was conducted by web panel between January 7 and 9, involving 1,547 Canadians 18 years of age or older.
The polling industry’s professional body, the Canadian Research Insights Council, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.
Debate over Bill 21 was ignited in December after Grade 3 teacher Fatemeh Anvari was reassigned from teaching duties at her Chelsea, Que., school because she wore a hijab.
In an interview, Jedwab said he believed the incident demonstrated the real impacts of a law that had previously felt mostly symbolic.
“When we saw someone wearing a hijab being removed from the classroom, I think my sense is that that’s contributed to this drop in support,” he said.
Premier François Legault has repeatedly cited strong public support for Bill 21 as a warning to any leaders outside Quebec who challenge it. Jedwab said the survey results suggest that consensus could be eroding, although he said it was too soon to know if the dip in support was a temporary response to Anvari losing her teaching job.
The poll suggested that support for Bill 21 is divided along linguistic and generational lines.
While 59 per cent of French speakers in the survey said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support banning visible religious symbols worn by teachers, only 26 per cent of English speakers felt the same.
Amongst Quebecers, 73.9 per cent of people aged 65 to 74 said they supported the ban — the highest of any age group — while only 27.8 of 18-to-24-year-olds said they did.
Across Canada, the average was 33 per cent in favour of the ban, 55 per cent against and 12 per cent undecided.
Across Canada, including in Quebec, a majority of survey respondents said they felt it was important for the Supreme Court of Canada to issue an opinion on whether Bill 21 discriminates against religious groups.
Opinion was more divided on whether the federal government should intervene in any eventual Supreme Court challenge of the law.
A total of 39 per cent of respondents were in favour of federal intervention compared to 29 per cent against. That support was strongest in Ontario but lower in several other provinces including Quebec, where 42 per cent felt the government should not intervene and 37 per cent said it should.
Support was even more mixed when it came to the involvement of big city mayors outside Quebec. The greatest number of respondents, by a 34 per cent to 29 per cent margin, felt the mayors should not support opponents of the bill. That sentiment was strongest in Quebec, while respondents in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta voted narrowly in favour of mayoral action.