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Words fail Trudeau in response to Quebec’s ban on face coverings

Justin Trudeau was once one of the loudest voices opposing the government wanting to force veiled Muslim women to uncover their faces. Now that he has a tribune as Prime Minister, his response to Quebec's Bill 62 has been muted.

The fear of being cast in Quebec as an interfering federal leader has softened his tongue.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Trudeau told us by Twitter that his views haven't changed. "My views have always been known, and it's where I'll always be," he tweeted, along with a link to a video of a 43-minute speech he gave on March 9, 2015, called Canadian Liberty and the Politics of Fear.

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But that old chestnut, "my views on this issue are well-known," is typically a way for a politician to avoid repeating those views too much at an uncomfortable time. In this case, that uncomfortable time is when a federalist Quebec Premier passes a law that clashes with those views – Bill 62 bars people from receiving public services with their face covered – and just before a by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.

Mr. Trudeau's March, 2015, speech made his views clear. "It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot choose to wear," he said. Those views bear repeating now. Yet, Mr. Trudeau has expressed them less forcefully this time.

When the former PQ government put forward similar measures in its Charter of Quebec Values in 2013, Mr. Trudeau called it unacceptable. When former prime minister Stephen Harper was making political hay out of a decision to bar the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, Mr. Trudeau harangued him for an "unconscionable" failure of leadership. He made his views crystal clear in the 2015 election campaign.

On Wednesday, when Quebec's National Assembly passed Bill 62, the Liberal MP for the South Shore Montreal riding of Brossard–Saint-Lambert, Alexandra Mendès, said she presumed that the federal government would contest it in court – after all, she said, Mr. Trudeau was so clear on that subject in 2015. "I presume he will because I know him," she said. But she doesn't know him as well as she thinks. Mr. Trudeau said on Thursday it's not the federal government's place to contest the law.

Where was Mr. Trudeau when he said that? In Lac-Saint-Jean, once a nationalist fortress, campaigning for the Liberal candidate in a by-election to be held next week. The PM's shyness isn't just about whether he's for or against the law, it's about whether he's seen as interfering.

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That's a particular political sensitivity. Bill 62 is not a unanimous, uncontroversial measure – the small Québec Solidaire called it incoherent, reflecting the views of many in its urban, left-leaning support base. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre noted his bus-drivers' union is already raising concerns about being a burka police. But resentment that politicians in Ottawa, and in other provinces, are interfering in a Quebec law – there's a bigger consensus behind that.

Even new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who declared himself "completely opposed" to Bill 62, took pains to say he respects Quebec's jurisdiction and it should be contested under Quebec law. Mr. Singh, of course, has to worry about the politics. His predecessor, Thomas Mulcair, blamed his 2015 election debacle on opposing the citizenship-ceremony niqab ban.

Mr. Trudeau probably wants to be gentle with a federalist premier, Philippe Couillard. But the PM, with 40 seats in Quebec, wants to avoid sparking resentment at Ottawa interference.

That's related to the complaint that Quebec is regularly painted elsewhere in Canada as racist – when Mr. Harper's niqab ban was aimed at voters outside Quebec, too, and there are popular English-Canadian websites that regularly warn that the imposition of Sharia law is imminent. There are serious-minded Quebeckers who argue that the ban of the burka is a gender-equality statement, viewing it as a symbol of sexist repression imposed by male intimidation. Of course, it's hard to see how banning such women from a bus or a social service won't isolate them, rather than free them.

That's precisely the kind of statement Mr. Trudeau once made loudly, along with a clear defence of freedoms. Muslim-Canadians might have expected to hear them again now. As PM, he has a bully pulpit, but he appears wary of being labelled a bully.

‘Robust discussion’ needed after Quebec passes law on face coverings: Trudeau (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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