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Critics have accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of hypocrisy and cowardliness in refusing to take a tougher stand in public against Bill 21, sensing he fears a backlash in Quebec, where the Liberals aim to gain a few seats in the next election.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), Mustafa Farooq, may not have been the first person to draw a link between the attack that killed four members of a London, Ont., family and Quebec’s ban on religious symbols in the public service. But the comments he made during Monday’s broadcast of The National from the site of the tragedy reignited a debate that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had sought to avoid.

After saying that the attack underscored the need for Canadians to do more “to fight violent Islamophobia and systemic Islamophobia,” Mr. Farooq declared: “I mean, we’re only a few hours drive from Quebec where it is illegal for someone who wears a hijab to become a prosecutor, to become a teacher at a French school. This is insanity and it needs to change.”

The following day, Mr. Trudeau was asked by anglophone journalists if he agreed with those who argue that Quebec’s law, which forbids public servants in a position of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job, encourages “hate and discrimination” against Muslims. He was also asked if he intended to speak out more forcefully against the Quebec law, which he had previously said he opposes.

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Trudeau will fight discrimination against Muslims – so long as they don’t live in Quebec

In Legault’s Quebec, the use of the notwithstanding clause is an act of affirmation

The Prime Minister clearly did not relish being drawn into a discussion about Bill 21, which the Coalition Avenir Québec government of Premier François Legault adopted in 2019 after more than a decade of heated debate over religious accommodation in the province. Mr. Trudeau did reject the suggestion that the Quebec law encourages Islamophobia. But he could not hide his ambivalence toward the law.

“It would not surprise me that, in the weeks and months to come, there are reflections to be had on the goal and importance of Bill 21, in part because for more than a year we’ve spent a lot of time with masks covering our faces when receiving public services,” Mr. Trudeau offered. “And also because there is a real concern about the rise in intolerance and Islamophobia.”

Bill 21 does require Quebeckers to show their faces when receiving or dispensing public services, incorporating a similar niqab ban imposed by the previous Liberal government. But the ban on face coverings was never enforced before the COVID-19 pandemic. And it is unlikely to be applied once it ends.

The crux of Bill 21, which the CAQ government has attempted to insulate from a Charter of Rights challenge by invoking the notwithstanding clause, involves asserting the religious neutrality of public institutions by prohibiting state employees in a position of authority, including Crown prosecutors and teachers, from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.

A Quebec Superior Court judge recently ruled that Quebec cannot use the notwithstanding clause to deny the province’s English-language school boards, whose rights are specifically protected under the Charter, from determining their own hiring policies. The case is expected to end up before the Supreme Court of Canada and Mr. Trudeau faces pressure from opponents of Bill 21, including the NCCM, to formally join them in challenging the law in the courts.

Critics have accused the Prime Minister of hypocrisy and cowardliness in refusing to take a tougher stand in public against the law, sensing he fears a backlash in Quebec, where the Liberals aim to gain a few seats in the next election. There is no doubt a big element of political expediency in Mr. Trudeau’s reluctance to criticize Bill 21.

Still, when it comes to Quebec, Mr. Trudeau is becoming less his father’s son with each passing day. He began his political career defending Dad’s view of federalism. But he has increasingly moved to the middle when it comes to Quebec’s autonomy. Two of his most influential Quebec ministers, Pablo Rodriguez and Marc Garneau, fought in 2006 to have the Liberal Party recognize Quebec as a nation. At the time, Mr. Trudeau opposed the idea. He now accepts it.

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The concept of secularism, which is a pillar of Quebec nationhood, is mostly foreign to English Canada’s political culture – which helps explain why so much of the debate over Bill 21 gets lost in translation on the other side of the Ontario border. The debate over religious head coverings began in Quebec after Muslim immigrants from North African countries, many of whom had come to Canada to escape what they saw as regressive social norms, pushed for a ban on the grounds of women’s equality. This has influenced attitudes in the province in ways the rest of Canada often fails to appreciate.

Yes, Mr. Trudeau opposes Bill 21. But not with the indignation, or arrogance, his father would have opposed it. Can the rest of Canada ever get its head around that?

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