It was mystifying to watch last week as a handful of federal politicians discovered their voices on Quebec’s 2019 religious symbols ban. It was like seeing babies discover their feet for the first time – You mean to tell me I’ve had toes this whole time?! – except these infants were seasoned politicians who had chosen to look away for years as the country’s second most populous province actively discriminated against its own residents.
“Appalling,” tweeted former Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna, who held some of the most important positions in Ottawa over the past six years. Ms. McKenna, who is no longer in politics, declared that now was the “time for political leaders to take a stand against Bill 21,” which is convenient timing since she is no longer a political leader.
She was joined by Conservative MP Kyle Seeback, who tweeted he “cannot in good conscience keep silent on this anymore,” and Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, who said in a statement that “we are better than fear and prejudice,” and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who called Quebec’s enforcement of the law “cowardly.” A handful of other elected representatives across party lines also chimed in, expressing varying degrees of aghast and horror at their discovery of the status quo in Quebec.
Canada has had two federal elections since Bill 21 became law in Quebec, and two elections during which federal leaders declined to risk their prospects in the province to repudiate state-imposed discrimination in a manner it deserves. Their caucuses likewise remained largely silent on the matter, and other than the odd expression of tepid disagreement, most MPs chose to obediently ignore this gross injustice.
What changed last week was that the effect of Bill 21 was given a face and a name: Fatemeh Anvari was removed from the Grade 3 classroom she had been teaching since October for the sole reason that she wears a hijab. Ms. Anvari was reassigned to another position at the elementary school in Chelsea, Que., but parents and students rightly protested the decision.
In response to the attention, Premier François Legault noted that the school board in western Quebec never should have hired Ms. Anvari in the first place, which is technically true according to the law. But in making that point, Mr. Legault inadvertently highlighted just how accidental all of this recent attention happened to be.
The pervasiveness of Bill 21 is that its effect has been mostly invisible, functioning to control who is not hired for certain jobs (a grandfather clause has allowed those who wear religious symbols and occupied certain positions to keep their jobs after the law came into force). Ms. Anvari seems to have been hired by accident, or out of confusion over a court ruling and subsequent provincial appeal regarding the law’s application to Quebec’s English school boards.
But the fact is that had she never been hired and then reassigned, it’s certain that political leaders would have carried on paying no heed to Quebec’s mandated discrimination, since it’s much more difficult – conceptionally speaking – to be outraged about the nameless and faceless people who are never hired in the first place. But when a beloved teacher with a voice and a story is removed from her classroom because of a backward and oppressive legislation, it becomes laborious for even the most craven politician to try to pretend that there isn’t something very wrong happening in Quebec.
That’s not to suggest that the pathological cowardliness that has invaded federal leaders on all matters of Quebec has been cured by recognition of Ms. Anvari’s plight. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole turtled in his shell when asked about the story, coughing out only that the issue is a provincial matter.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated that he is in “profound disagreement with Bill 21,” but said his government won’t intervene for now so as “not to give the excuse to the Quebec government that this is federal interference.” That claim supposes that the Legault government isn’t already claiming federal interference, and that depriving Quebec of a political cudgel is more virtuous than using every federal resource possible to defend the rights of marginalized Quebeckers.
Mr. Trudeau’s government has used federal financial levers to put pressure on New Brunswick for failing to improve access to abortion. Its caucus speaks out in chorus in reaction to individual acts of hatred and discrimination, and will condemn examples of systemic injustice that are not Quebec-specific.
But it took a sympathetic story of a teacher losing her job to snap politicians out of their inertia, years after the law came into effect. And even then, the attention likely will be fleeting as Bill 21 returns to its hard work of quietly discriminating against applicants, away from the public eye. The law is Canada’s great shame, and should be a source of perpetual outrage.
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