To the extent that the debate over Bill 21 plays out as Quebec vs. Canada, English vs. French, “Quebec’s secular values” vs. “overbearing Canadian multiculturalism,” it benefits the legislation’s supporters, notably the Coalition Avenir government of Premier François Legault. It benefits them enormously.
They, and Bill 21, will be political winners if Quebeckers come to believe that supporting the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State means standing with Quebec, while opposing the law means you’re some kind of a fellow traveller for an outside agenda, one aimed at diminishing North America’s only majority francophone society. In a debate framed as us-versus-them, us wins. Always.
Which is why, though this misguided law deserves to be challenged, and hopefully will be rescinded one day, at least some critics need to take a back seat and put a sock in it. Because they aren’t helping. At all.
Consider Brampton, Ont., whose city council pledged $100,000 to fund the court case against Bill 21. The mayor called on other municipalities to follow suit; councils in Toronto and Calgary quickly signed on.
Within Quebec, this is playing about as well as that time in 1990 when some folks in Brockville, Ont., decided to express their constitutional opinions by going into the street and stomping on a Quebec flag.
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This page has repeatedly called Bill 21 a mistake. It is a solution in search of a problem – was Quebec not a secular society before 2019? The law harms a minority of Quebeckers, solely for the purpose of allowing politicians like Mr. Legault to wrap themselves in the flag.
The law also clearly violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The Legault government effectively acknowledges as much, which is why it took the extreme step of invoking both charters’s notwithstanding clauses. Bill 21 is largely, perhaps entirely, immune from being overturned by the courts.
That means this is now a fundamentally political debate. Barring a surprise reinterpretation of the notwithstanding clause when the case eventually reaches the Supreme Court, if the law is to be changed, it is the National Assembly that will have the power to do it.
And it’s not like that can’t happen. The law has always had many critics within Quebec. The centrist Quebec Liberal Party didn’t vote for it; neither did the leftist, sovereigntist Québec solidaire. Prior to Bill 21′s passage, Montreal City Council unanimously condemned it.
Nor is it difficult to find critics in the province’s media. In Le Devoir, columnist Michel David described the hiring and forced removal from the classroom of teacher Fatemeh Anvari, solely because she wears a hijab, as, “a way of illustrating all the inequity of this horrible law.” In La Presse, Michel C. Auger asked: “Was Bill 21 about solving a major and urgent problem or was it rather a rather transparent attempt to build up some political capital? Premier François Legault is certainly not helping himself by repeating each time he’s asked about it that Bill 21 is popular.”
And in Le Journal de Montréal, Josée Legault decried how turning this into a Canada-versus-Quebec thing means that critics within the province risk being accused of the “crime of lèse-québécitude.” That’s also why Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante says she’s “uncomfortable” with city councils from Ontario and beyond wading waist-deep into the fray.
The rights that Bill 21 undermines are not Canadian rights imposed on Quebec. The Quebec Charter, a quasi-constitutional document, became law a half decade before the Canadian Charter. Among the rights being trampled are those the Quebec National Assembly bound itself to uphold.
Bill 21 is being challenged before the courts, and it should be. But the notwithstanding clause – a kind of constitutional vaccine, which must be renewed every five years – appears to largely inoculate it against the rights enumerated in the Canadian and Quebec charters.
So this battle is largely one that will have to be decided in Quebec, through politics.
And to win a political fight, a contest of persuasion, the best course is to be politic. Politics may be more challenging than the easy social media pleasure of calling out and cancelling, but it is necessary. It always has been. It’s how Canada has survived this long.
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