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Dr. William Steinberg speaks to reporters following a news conference in Montreal, on April 5, 2019, where he called on Quebecers to oppose the Quebec government's newly tabled Bill 21.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday became the latest politician to call out a suburban Montreal mayor who compared Quebec’s recently tabled secularism bill to ethnic cleansing.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Trudeau repeated his opposition to Bill 21 but said Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg’s comments were unacceptable and that the mayor needs to apologize.

“We don’t need to go to extremes,” Trudeau said. “We can debate the bill without going too far. There are people who are extremely worried by this bill, and I understand them. But we shouldn’t use words like that.”

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Bill 21 would prohibit public servants in positions of authority – including teachers – from wearing religious symbols. Steinberg, whose suburb has a population of about 7,000, drew the wrath of Quebec’s political class last Friday when he said Bill 21 “is ethnic cleansing, not with a gun but with a law.”

On Tuesday Steinberg rejected multiple demands for an apology, including from Quebec Premier Francois Legault.

He said people were twisting his words and that he was referring to “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” He said he fears an apology would detract from his criticism that the bill will cause religious minorities to leave the province.

Conservative MP Alain Rayes told reporters Steinberg should apologize “as fast as possible.” The MP from Quebec said he supports Bill 21. He said Quebec’s “legitimate” government was elected on a promise to table a secularism bill.

In Quebec City, the Liberals and governing Coalition Avenir Quebec accused each other of prompting Steinberg’s remarks.

“For sure, what the CAQ is doing in Quebec generally invites this sort of excess,” interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand said. “There are bills that are divisive, and obviously that often leads to excesses.”

Legault responded that the Liberals failed while they were in power to address Quebecers’ unease around religious symbols in the public service. “That certainly allows people to become divided,” he said.

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