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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks from the podium at a vigil for the victims of the deadly vehicle attack on five members of the Canadian Muslim community in London, Ontario, on June 8, 2021.

NICOLE OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

How does one reach the level of shamelessness to at once pledge that the government will do everything in its power to combat discrimination and Islamophobia in Canada, and then, moments later, shrug off questions about Ottawa’s indifference to a patently discriminatory provincial law that prohibits those who wear religious symbols from working certain jobs?

Does partisan politics rewire certain structures in the brain? Is there an invisible border at Gatineau beyond which prejudice becomes imperceptible to federal politicians lusting over majority mandates? Or are leaders merely hoping that most Canadians won’t be able to understand the difference between separation of church and state and state-mandated secularism?

Surely it was not lost on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the same symbols that ostensibly made the Afzaal family a target for the man now charged with their murders and attempted murder in London, Ont., would have also made them ineligible for certain jobs in Quebec. Indeed, 15-year-old Yumna could’ve grown up to be almost anything she wanted in Canada – except for a teacher in one of Quebec’s French language boards, if she had chosen to wear a hijab.

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Bill 21 is quite clearly legislated discrimination, and it would almost certainly be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had Premier François Legault not pre-emptively equipped it with the notwithstanding clause when he tabled it years ago. Since then, Mr. Trudeau – along with other opposition leaders – have tiptoed around the legislation, careful not to rouse the majority in Quebec who view the religious symbols ban favourably. Indeed, the Prime Minister has gone so far as to express his “disagreement” with the bill – a sentiment more appropriate for when, say, a domestic partner disapproves of a choice of living room curtains, and not when the second-most populous province in the country writes legislation deeming people who wear religious symbols unfit to hold certain jobs.

London attack results of federal government inaction on Islamophobia, expert says

Trudeau denounces London killings as ‘terrorist attack’

Mr. Trudeau reiterated his “disagreement” when asked about the legislation Tuesday, and he noted that his government is “watching carefully” as citizens challenge Bill 21 in court. But just hours earlier, he had made a statement in the House of Commons in response to the horrific killings in London, saying that watching and waiting is not enough to combat religious discrimination. “As leaders, and as Canadians, we not only have to say ‘enough is enough,’ we must take action,” he said – presumably to everyone else in the room.

When asked directly if he thinks Bill 21 fosters “hatred” and “discrimination” against minorities, Mr. Trudeau answered straightforwardly: “No.”

There is no moral high ground to be enjoyed by the leaders of the major opposition parties on this issue, either. At a vigil for the family in London on Tuesday evening, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole stated: “The Afzaal family was entitled to the same security, the same freedom from fear and the same freedom to worship as every Canadian.” Yet Mr. O’Toole has also said he will not touch Bill 21, which limits the freedom of religious expression.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has perhaps been the most forthright in his opposition to Quebec’s secularism law, for obvious reasons, but he has been notably tepid in his remarks on the issue, especially after his Quebec caucus was whittled down to just one MP in the last election.

Weaponizing Islamophobia for partisan gain is a familiar pastime in Canadian politics. Former Quebec premier Pauline Marois tried to wield it with her proposed values charter, which would have banned “overt” religious symbols in public-sector workplaces. The Conservatives tried to tap into anti-Muslim sentiments with their 2015 promises to consider a niqab ban for public servants and to implement a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline – dogwhistles for which some current MPs are now trying to make amends. And the Ontario Liberals under premier Dalton McGuinty stoked segregationist fears in response to a 2007 proposal by then-PC leader John Tory to extend public funding beyond Catholic schools to all religious schools.

There are real actions that federal leaders can take, today, to combat institutional discrimination against religious minorities in Canada, starting with speaking out unequivocally against an unjust law. To do so, however, would require a testicular fortitude that tends to shrivel when confronted with matters relating to Quebec, and it would require putting principles above partisan gain, which is a rather unfamiliar tactic in contemporary Canadian politics. Federal leaders have an opportunity in this moment to reaffirm that religious symbols should not disqualify individuals from certain jobs in any province – any more than they should serve as targets for unconscionable attacks.

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Yet they have chosen, instead, to air pleasant-sounding thoughts and prayers before retreating back into their comfortable political cocoons.

“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” Mr. Trudeau said on Twitter a day after the London attack.

If he was being honest, he would have added: “unless you live in Quebec.”

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