The legislation, the first of its kind in North America, has drawn criticism across Canada and among rights advocates worldwide. But it has support in Quebec, a key battleground in the tight race between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and opposition leader Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. The French-speaking province holds 78 of the 338 seats up for grabs in the Oct. 21 vote.
Which is why the leaders have been somewhat muted in their criticism.
Trudeau, who opposed the bill before it was approved in June, has said he doesn’t believe free societies should be “allowing discrimination against anyone.” Scheer said in Montreal this week that he wouldn’t implement such a law at the federal level. Green Party leader Elizabeth May called it “distressing.” New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban, described it as “discriminatory.”
But only Trudeau has left the door slightly ajar to “intervening at a later date.” Several organizations have filed legal challenges to the bill. The prime minister, who represents a district in Montreal, has said it would be “counterproductive” to join such a challenge now.
All of which disappoints Amrit Kaur. Kaur, a Sikh woman from Quebec, graduated from teachers college June 16 — the day Bill 21 was approved. Rather than remove her turban to work in her home province, she moved across the country to take a job in Surrey, B.C.
Kaur, an activist with the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said she’s tired of federal leaders paying “lip service” to criticism of the ban but not taking action.
“It shows that they’re just pandering for the sake of votes — and not for the sake of the values that make us Canadian,” she said.
Quebec Premier François Legault has described Bill 21 as another step in the lengthy process of secularizing the province in which the Catholic Church long wielded outsize influence. Police officers, teachers and other public employees hold positions of authority in their communities, he says, and shouldn’t be wearing symbols that might promote their faith while they serve the public.
Critics see the legislation as an assault on the practices of Muslims, Sikhs and other religious minorities, many of them relative newcomers to the province. Politicians and activists across Canada and beyond have condemned it; local leaders in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta have passed resolutions opposing it.
But polls have shown nearly 2 in 3 Quebecers support the law — making it a “hot potato,” pollster Christian Bourque said.
“A leader of a federal government would be going against somewhat of a consensus in the province,” said Bourque, of the Leger polling firm in Montreal. “They can quickly do away with the issue by saying they won’t personally challenge it.”
Complicating the politics is the separatist Bloc Québécois party, which supports the law and is competitive in several districts in the province.
Montreal’s English-language school board, the province’s largest, says four job applicants who wore hijabs withdrew their applications rather than remove their veils. One returned and said she would take the hijab off.
“It is very unfortunate,” school board spokesman Michael Cohen said. “But we had no choice.”
Groups including the English-language school board and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are challenging the law in court. But the federal party leaders have taken a different tack.
Singh is one of them. On a campaign stop at a Montreal market Wednesday, a man suggested the Ontario-born and -educated lawyer remove his turban so he would “look like a Canadian.”
“I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” Singh replied. He later told reporters that his very presence in Quebec was “an act of defiance” against the law but that he would let the courts handle it.
That suits Quebec’s premier just fine. Legault asked the federal leaders last month to promise to “stay out” of any legal challenges “forever.”
But it’s not good enough for Jack Jedwab. The president of the Montreal-based Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration says it’s hard to square the leaders’ reluctance to intervene with the promises they’ve made to tackle racism and systemic discrimination after revelations last month that Trudeau wore blackface several times as a younger man. (Trudeau has apologized.)
“If you’re truly committed to issues of combating discrimination and inequality, you would think that these leaders would take stronger positions on Bill 21,” he said.
Amira Elghawaby, a board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said she’s “disappointed” in the leaders for “throwing minority communities under the bus because [they] don’t feel that speaking up for our rights and freedoms is worth it.”
Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary, sees “a real lack of courage.”
“What I’ve heard from the federal leaders is a lot of mumbling apologia about dignity and human rights,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. this week. “And then a pretty forceful thing that says, ‘But we’re not going to do anything about it.’ ”
Nenshi said that the federal government has tools at its disposal beyond joining a legal challenge, such as withholding federal funding or employing the rarely used power of disallowance to wipe out a provincial statute.
Kerri Froc, an assistant law professor at the University of New Brunswick, said the use of disallowance “would probably generate a constitutional crisis.” A likelier though less powerful tactic, she said, would be a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the attorney general.