Skip to main content

During the federal election campaign, the leaders of the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives adopted identical positions on Quebec’s odious Bill 21, the law that bars government employees from wearing religious symbols, such as head coverings, on the job.

Muslim women were actively being refused jobs as public-school teachers in Quebec because of the law, but the men who wanted to lead this country refused to condemn Bill 21 in the outraged language it deserves.

They furthermore all promised that, as prime minister, their government wouldn’t intervene in any challenges to the law while those challenges remained at the provincial level, where they could be stuck for years.

It was a strategy calculated to win seats in Quebec. So how did this opportunistic betrayal of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms work out for the leaders?

All of them lost seats in the province. The Liberals dropped by six, the Conservatives by two and the NDP was reduced to a single seat in a province where it had 14 MPs before the election was called.

Most of those seats went to the Bloc Québécois, the separatist party that happily supports Bill 21 and is opposed to any federal involvement in the fight against the law. It now holds 32 seats in Quebec, only three fewer than the Liberals. Those 32 seats are also the third most in Parliament, behind the Conservative Opposition and the Liberal government.

So let’s just get this straight: Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer turned their backs on vulnerable people, whose basic freedoms were being trampled by the Quebec government, gained nothing from their cynical calculations and also somehow managed to be at their posts while a separatist party resuscitated itself at their expense. That’s some terrible politicking right there.

Or maybe it actually was a good move. Maybe the three leaders were able to prevent an even bigger victory for the BQ by pussyfooting around Bill 21. But again, at what cost?

Bill 21 is a stain on Canada and Quebec. It effectively prevents people, including those born, raised and educated in this country, from teaching, becoming police officers, serving as a judge or prosecutor, or holding a variety of other Quebec government positions unless they are willing to work without wearing a head-covering or other religious symbols.

The law is built on a lie – that its existence is necessary in order to preserve the secular nature of the Quebec government. That is self-evidently untrue. The federal government is secular and has no need for discriminatory hiring practices to keep it that way. The same can be said of all the provinces and territories.

And while Bill 21 applies to all religions, its effects are most felt by Muslim women. Not only have some of them now been barred from teaching and other jobs, but they also say that racist acts targeting them have increased since the law came into force this year.

Over the weekend, a columnist for a French-language Montreal newspaper tweeted a picture of a group of women and young girls wearing head coverings in a local mall, and wrote derisively about their “choice.” The columnist subsequently deleted the tweet, but not before she let her followers know where the group could be found.

The same weekend, on Sunday, several dozen people marched in the rain in Mr. Trudeau’s Montreal riding to protest Bill 21 and the systemic racism that it represents. They were alone, with no one in the provincial or federal government daring to protest with them.

What is perhaps most frustrating about the federal party leaders’ refusal to let Ottawa intervene in court cases against Bill 21, of which there are now at least two, is that any such intervention wouldn’t be a decisive factor. The cases will settled based on their merits, whether or not Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, eventually makes the grand gesture of having Ottawa seek intervener status in them.

The victims of Bill 21 don’t need a friend who only shows up in court, many years too late. What they need is for those who sit in Parliament to acknowledge that something ugly and unjust is happening right now in Quebec, and to find the political courage to stand up to a law that all can see is discriminatory.

What they need is Canadians walking beside them, not skulking around in the shadows behind them, secretly taking pictures of their children.

Interact with The Globe