Calgary is joining a growing list of Canadian cities supporting the legal challenge to Quebec’s controversial religious symbols law, part of a tide of outrage released by a school board’s recent decision to remove a hijab-wearing teacher from her classroom in the province. Toronto has backed the effort, while Winnipeg’s mayor hopes his city will follow suit.
Critics of Bill 21 inside the province, however, are asking other Canadians to rethink a strategy they believe could backfire by making Quebeckers feel beleaguered. The mayor of Montreal and the co-spokesperson of Québec solidaire, a major provincial party, have called the cities’ intervention counterproductive and questioned their standing to use public funds against a duly adopted provincial law, even one they oppose.
“This needs to be a discussion of Quebeckers’ fundamental rights, not a Canada versus Quebec issue,” said André Pratte, a former Canadian senator and long-time editorial writer for the newspaper La Presse who strongly opposes Bill 21. “The risk is that people who oppose the law are seen as tools of Canada’s politicians.”
The municipalities taking on the law are lining up behind Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, where city council pledged $100,000 to three civil society groups challenging Bill 21 last week. Mayor Patrick Brown also urged the mayors of Canada’s 100 largest cities to “join the fight” against legislation that bars certain public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols on the job.
In an interview on Monday, Mr. Brown argued that opponents of the law needed financial help to have a “level playing field” against the resources of the Quebec government.
“I’ve been inundated by calls from mayors and councils across the country who are wanting to contribute,” he said.
Last week, Toronto City Council offered the same financial support to the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association – all based in Ontario – who are leading a legal challenge of the law.
In a statement on Monday, Mayor John Tory’s office defended Toronto’s involvement in the debate around Bill 21, which passed in 2019 but came under renewed attack this month after teacher Fatemeh Anvari was removed from her classroom job in Chelsea, Que., for wearing a hijab. (The Western Québec School Board has since said it made a mistake in hiring Ms. Anvari when the law was already in place.)
“Mayor Tory has made it clear that in no way should this genuine opposition to Bill 21 and its implications be taken as an attack on Quebec or on Quebeckers,” spokesperson Don Peat said. “Mayor Tory does believe however that Bill 21 and the discussion and litigation surrounding it are very much a legitimate area for engagement by other elected officials in Canada principally due to the fact that the Charter is a national document and the rights guaranteed in it are guaranteed to all Canadians.”
On Monday, Calgary City Council passed a motion to support the legal fight, although the motion did not include a specific commitment to fund the lawsuit or say how much the city would be prepared to spend. Instead, the motion calls for a municipal task force to identify how the city could assist the legal challenge.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek said in an interview last week that the Quebec law is clearly discriminatory and that cities are wading into the issue because the federal government has failed to respond.
“People who are perfectly capable of doing their jobs are losing them in a province that has decided that they cannot exercise their rights,” Ms. Gondek said. “So when a federal government sits quietly by ... you’re left with one order of government that actually has the guts to call it out.”
The motion passed with a vote of 10-5 after a debate that focused largely on whether the city should be putting resources into a legal dispute several provinces away. Some of the councillors who voted against the motion said they were personally opposed to Bill 21 but that it doesn’t make sense for the city to spend money opposing it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has left the door open to intervening in the legal fight. In a year-end interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV’s Power Play, he said he has been clear about how much he disagrees with Bill 21.
However, he said the best way to fight the law is for Quebeckers to challenge it in the courts, which the English Montreal School Board is in the process of doing. The Quebec Superior Court exempted English-language school boards from the law in April, but it remains in place across the province while the provincial government appeals the ruling.
“Right now, Quebeckers are using their full powers to challenge this unfair law in court and it is better that the Legault government have to defend itself against its fellow citizens then have a distraction of a fight against Ottawa,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Quebec opponents of the law are virtually unanimous in objecting to the intervention of English Canadian cities. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has said it made her “uncomfortable,” while Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told the newspaper Le Devoir it harms the quality of debate around Bill 21 within Quebec.
The ultimate goal should be for Quebeckers to reform the law themselves, said Mr. Pratte, now a principal at the public relations and crisis management firm Navigator – but that will be more difficult if they feel resentful of intrusions by the rest of Canada.
“We have to be strategic here. It’s not just a matter of expressing our frustration.“
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.