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editorial

Amrit Kaur, a young woman from Quebec, has been in the news this month because of her decision to take a teaching job in Surrey, B.C.

Ms. Kaur is Sikh. She wears a turban. She earned an education degree in university, but graduated this year at the same time that the Quebec government enacted Bill 21, a discriminatory law that prohibits many provincial employees – including teachers – from wearing religious headgear or symbols at work.

Because of this restriction, Ms. Kaur has accepted a teaching position at the other end of the country, where she will be free to dress as she chooses.

She could have agreed to remove her turban while on the job in a public school in Quebec or to work in a private school. But her goal is to teach in the public system while staying true to her faith. So she is decamping to a place where that is allowed.

In other words, Ms. Kaur is a person of conviction.

The same can’t be said of the leaders of the main federal political parties as they jostle for the support of Quebec voters in the fall election.

While most of them have said that Bill 21 is not the sort of law they would support or adopt, not one of them has made a full-throated defence of the right to live and work anywhere in Canada free from religious discrimination.

The leaders’ problem is political. Most Quebeckers support Bill 21 – which also targets police officers, judges, prosecutors and prison guards – and have identified it as being critical to the province’s character as a secular state. None of the federal leaders is willing to pay the price that would come with publicly calling out the law for what it actually is: a stain on the entire country.

Ask someone to name a place where people are banned from working for the government because of their religious beliefs and few would say Canada. But that is what our country has become, because of Bill 21.

It matters not that Ms. Kaur and others like her can pack up their lives and move to another province, like some sort of displaced person, in order to find work in an environment safe from discrimination.

After all, it is the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms that allows such travesties to occur. The Quebec government notably invoked the Charter’s notwithstanding clause in Bill 21, because it knew the law was inherently discriminatory and open to court challenges.

In a very real sense, Quebec Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec have knowingly trampled on religious freedom in Canada and are daring federal politicians to do or say something about it.

Which is why the responses of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are so troubling.

It is a cop-out for them to argue that this is an internal matter for the province to sort out. And it is not acceptable for them to pretend, as Mr. Trudeau once put it, that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and then allow an exception to that rule in Quebec.

Their calculated silence is made even more dispiriting by the fact Bill 21 is completely unnecessary. British Columbia, Ms. Kaur’s future home, allows public employees to wear turbans, hijabs and kippahs on the job; so do all the other provinces. At the federal level, politicians, judges and police officers routinely wear religious headgear at work.

And yet, last time we checked, all are administered by secular governments. There is no evidence for, or logic behind, the argument that a state’s secular status is jeopardized by a teacher in a turban.

In fact, it is the government that allows people to express a range of religious beliefs without restriction, and which imposes no beliefs on its citizens, that is the truly secular one.

As well, the genesis of Bill 21 can’t be overlooked. It is wilful blindness to pretend that it wasn’t motivated in part by a bigoted suspicion of Muslim women, who are the law’s most obvious targets.

And yet, our federal political leaders cannot find the courage to condemn this ugly law in the forceful way it deserves. As it currently stands, the next prime minister of Canada will be a person who was complicit with a breach of our fundamental rights, all in order to win a few seats on election day.

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