It’s not the first time a government tried to restrict what people can wear

Hill Times December 20, 2021

Elementary school teacher Fatemeh Anvari was forced out of her classroom in Chelsea because she wears a hijab, thanks to Bill 21 which rules that civil servants not wear any religious symbols. Apparently, this is in the name of secularism, but let’s be real. It’s in the name of racism if it targets a certain group for additional restrictions on their human rights.

Isn’t that the whole point of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms? To ensure we are equal in the eyes of the law? It’s a sad day if we don’t remember the other times that governments attempted to infringe on human rights. It’s a sad day if we don’t learn anything from it.

In 1914, church leaders and federal government bureaucrats agreed that the “Indians” (the word of that day and now an offensive term) really shouldn’t do those Indian dances or ceremonies because they really should be ‘civilized’ and dress like English or Frenchman.  As with most aspects of the Indian Act, this was intended to subjugate Indians as less-than.

It wasn’t a great time. The amendments to the Indian Act in the first 30 years of the 1900s were harsh and detailed as to the restrictions placed on Indians: no dances or pow wows, no entry into pool halls, no leaving the reserve without a pass, no buying a homestead and more distressing clauses of Canadian law. And the Indian Act restricted the wearing of regalia—it wasn’t allowed in public events.

Under Sec. 140(3): “Any Indian … who participates in any show, exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant in aboriginal costume without the consent of the Superintendent General or his authorized agent … shall on summary conviction be liable to a penalty not exceeding twenty-five dollars or to imprisonment for one month, or to both penalty and imprisonment.”

Regalia. Not costumes. Regalia holds meaning in the knowledge system of the community—the colours, beads, feathers, and design all combine to tell a story. The story might be about the role and connectedness of the individual in community or the special gifts recognized in the individual. Regalia has meaning. This is likely why the government wanted regalia banned. Regalia was also stripped off children entering residential schools.

Many of the more racist and illegal clauses of the Indian Act were amended in the 1950s, including the ban on regalia just for Indians. Canada signed on to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which enshrined the basics of pluralism in states, to ensure we never allow a people to be subjugated because of their race, culture, or religion. Canada signed on to the declaration but did not include Indigenous peoples as they were not considered equal citizens. It was only due to the substantial international pressure that Canada finally relented and slowly gave some rights to Indigenous peoples over the next decade.

Skip forward to today and we would agree that the government can’t tell Indigenous peoples what they can wear. Because that would be wrong.

One might wonder what would be Quebec’s response if Indigenous school teachers showed up to work tomorrow in their Indigenous regalia? Imagine the beauty of the pow wow regalia, the Inuit amauti, or the beaded moccasins and the deep meaning of regalia worn proudly. Would this be considered illegal for civil servants under Bill 21? Would Indigenous teachers in regalia be removed from their positions?

Except there are very few Indigenous teachers in Quebec schools.  The Quebec Human Rights Commission found in 2020 that only 0.3 per cent of workforce was Indigenous in the province’s health, schools, police, and public transit and municipalities. Visible minorities made up only 6.3 per cent of civil servants, even though about 13 per cent of Quebecers are visible minorities. For comparison, about 23 per cent of the Canadian population are visible minorities.

It seems there might be some barriers for Indigenous peoples and visible minorities to work in the Quebec government.

The threat to human rights under Bill 21 for some Quebecers is an alarming issue that demands the attention and support of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples know all too well what happens when government starts to infringe on clothing. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis groups and leaders should be speaking out against Bill 21 and adding our voices to the many who demand that the Charter is the law of our land.