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People rally against Quebec’s Bill 21 in Chelsea, Que., on Dec. 14, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

When Canadian mayors started speaking out against Bill 21 this month, the response from established opinion in Quebec was a resounding “butt out.” Cities had no business commenting on the legislation, which bars public employees in positions of authority from wearing religious attire such as hijabs and turbans in the workplace. This was a matter for Quebeckers and Quebeckers alone to decide.

Even those who dislike the law said it was poor strategy for cities to weigh in. Their vocal opposition to Bill 21 would only get Quebeckers’ backs up and give those like Premier François Legault an opportunity to say the rest of the country was ganging up on them.

Fortunately, the cities are holding their ground. Mayor Jyoti Gondek of Calgary says with federal politicians sitting on the sidelines, someone has to fight the bill. Cities are the “one order of government that actually has the guts to call it out.” Mayor John Tory of Toronto says officials outside of Quebec have legitimate cause to voice their opposition. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms “is a national document and the rights guaranteed in it are guaranteed to all Canadians.”

Just so. The Charter protects freedom of religion and expression and Bill 21 would almost certainly be overturned by a Charter challenge if Mr. Legault did not have a Get Out of Jail Free card in the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution.

When others are facing discrimination, we all have a right, even an obligation, to say something. And the discrimination in this case is clear. A young woman, Fatemeh Anvari, was removed from her job teaching Grade 3 in Chelsea, Quebec, solely because she wears a hijab.

The proof of systemic racism is in Quebec Premier François Legault’s own Bill 21

Politics brought Bill 21 into existence. Only politics can take it out

That such a thing could have happened in 21st-century Canada almost defies belief. It certainly defies logic. There is no evidence at all that a teacher in a hijab or a cop in a turban somehow threatens the secular status of the public service, the gains of the Quiet Revolution or the Quebec way of life. Ms. Anvari came to school to teach, not advertise, much less impose, her religion.

And Mayor Gondek is right: the federal parties have been standing on the sidelines. Only a few months ago, in the heat of the last election campaign, the leaders of the Liberal, New Democratic and Conservative parties all rushed to denounce the organizers of a debate simply because the moderator dared to ask Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet why his party backs “discriminatory laws” that “marginalize religious minorities” – as Bill 21 plainly does. Only after the Anvari case ripped the mask off the bill did they start to talk more forcefully, and even now they hedge their opposition for fear of losing votes in Quebec.

Mayors and city councils are well placed to fill the breach. Canada’s big cities are a brilliant testimonial for the live-and-let-live approach to cultural difference. People come from around the world to study how places such as Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and, of course, Montreal have absorbed so many newcomers with so little friction or strife. The mayor who led cities in opposing Bill 21 was Patrick Brown of Brampton, a city that’s a dynamic immigrant magnet in Greater Toronto.

Could their campaign blow up in their face, leading Quebeckers to rally around the fleur-de-lis and lowering the odds of overturning the law through Quebec’s internal political process? The argument will be familiar to any campaigner for human rights. Don’t make such a racket – it will only make things worse for the victims. Don’t make a fuss over persecution elsewhere – it will give the persecutors an excuse to blame outsiders. It’s not really our business to meddle. Pushing them on human rights will only drive them into a corner. They have their own way of doing things and we have to respect it.

The argument has been wrong before and it is wrong now. This is a matter not of politics or strategy but of principle, and the principle – that no Canadian should face discrimination on the basis of religious belief – could hardly be more important. The mayors are right to take a stand. It’s never a bad time to speak up about rights.

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