No sooner had Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau left the door open to participating in a court challenge to Quebec’s Bill 21, provided his party wins the Oct. 21 federal election, than Premier François Legault curtly told him to keep his nose out of his province’s business.
This was hardly the way Mr. Trudeau hoped to kick off his re-election campaign on Wednesday. His government had tried to remove a series of potential campaign irritants with Quebec by stepping up with billions in funding for a Montreal subway extension, a Quebec City streetcar line, labour-market training programs and asylum seekers. But there was little the Liberal Leader could do to eliminate the biggest potential irritant of them of all.
Bill 21, the four-month-old law that bans provincial employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, is an affront to everything Mr. Trudeau purports to stand for. He conceded as much, as journalists pressed him outside Rideau Hall on Wednesday to say whether a Liberal government would join a constitutional challenge to the law launched by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
The word coy does not begin to describe his response. “At this time,” Mr. Trudeau began, “I feel it would be counterproductive to engage in the process.”
Counterproductive for whom, he didn’t say. Certainly not for the current or aspiring Quebec teachers who will be, or who already have been, prohibited from exercising their profession in the province’s public schools because they wear the hijab. By joining the current court challenge, the federal government would lend a powerful voice of support to their cause. By remaining on the sidelines, Mr. Trudeau has shown he does not want to antagonize francophone Quebec voters, who overwhelmingly support the new legislation, before they go to the polls next month. Whether the gambit works is another matter.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have both stated that a government led by either of them would not intervene in any court challenge to Bill 21. It’s not clear Mr. Scheer even opposes the legislation; all he has said is that a Tory government would not introduce a similar bill at the federal level. For the NDP, it’s more complicated.
Under Bill 21, Mr. Singh, a lawyer by training, could never become a Crown attorney if he lived in Quebec unless he agreed to remove his turban at work. By making an analogy between Quebeckers fighting to protect their province’s secular identity and members of religious minorities fighting to preserve their confessional ones, Mr. Singh may actually change a few francophone minds – but likely not enough to save his party’s bacon in the province.
Mr. Legault is not actively seeking a confrontation with any federal leader. Previous Quebec premiers insecure in their own jobs, including former Liberal premier Jean Charest, fabricated conflicts with Ottawa to enhance their own stature as “defenders of Quebec’s interests.”
Mr. Legault is not that kind of politician. He doesn’t need to be. After nearly a year in office, the former sovereigntist has given expression to a rejuvenated form of Quebec nationalism revolving around the three pillars of identity, language and culture. He has, in short, become formidable. Pity the federal leader who dares to challenge him now.
Yet, if non-francophone voters in Quebec and Liberal supporters in the rest of Canada expect anything of Mr. Trudeau, it is that he stand up for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He may feel that the unwillingness of any other national leader to defy Quebec on Bill 21 spares him from committing to challenging the law now. But it is not clear the Liberal Leader will be able to maintain such a fine balancing act all the way until Oct. 21.
The Bloc Québécois has seized on comments made by Liberal MP Marc Miller, who represents a mostly non-francophone Montreal riding, suggesting his government has been preparing a constitutional challenge to Bill 21 separate from the one already under way that gets around Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause to insulate the law in the courts.
“You can expect [Mr. Trudeau] to stand up and represent interests that are of potentially federal jurisdiction, which includes the place of religion under the Constitution and the role of gender equality in the application of those Charter rights, which is not immunized by the use of the notwithstanding clause,” Mr. Miller told CBC’s The House last week.
Whether Mr. Trudeau likes it or not, this election could end up being more about Bill 21 than either he or Liberal strategists had bargained for. His own supporters might just see to it.