Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has been the rare political leader pointing to a sensitive spot. He voiced his dismay at Quebec’s Bill 21, the bill that bars the province’s public servants from wearing religious symbols, and in the process, underlined the relatively quiet response of federal political leaders.
“Here we have a piece of legislation that sends, I think, an un-Canadian message that they need to hide, or that they’re less acceptable for some reason – not just for what they wear, but for what they believe,” Mr. Pallister said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday. “I couldn’t stand back, as a Canadian, and as a Premier, and not say that I think this is dangerous legislation.”
He’s the outlier. You might expect it would be federal political leaders voicing their concerns – the ones who say they’re against Bill 21. But while all three of the major federal party leaders – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh – have said they oppose Bill 21, they have kept the pitch low.
If it were Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s law to bar teachers from wearing hijabs, kippas and crucifixes, you would expect Mr. Trudeau to bash it like a pinata. But it’s a Quebec law, put forward by Premier François Legault, and this is a federal election year.
All the party leaders are afraid of Mr. Legault – at least, they’re afraid of the wide swath of the Quebec electorate he represents.
There is strong support in Quebec for the law, according to several opinion polls. Many Quebec politicians and pundits see it as affirming that the state is secular. Mr. Legault brushes off accusations that it is discriminatory by saying governments in France and parts of Germany have adopted similar restrictions.
And federal politicians can’t really stop it. The federal power to disallow provincial bills has, appropriately, fallen into disuse. Mr. Legault’s government invoked the notwithstanding clause so the law will stay in effect even if it violates the Charter of Rights. Even so, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have asked Quebec Superior Court to declare that it infringes on fundamental rights. Some have called for Ottawa to join the case, but so far, the groups behind it have not done so.
“What we do think is important – and should be done more – is clear and consistent condemnation,” said Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. It’s an issue of “whether they think it’s appropriate in 2019 that a Jewish man wearing a kippa may not be able to become a teacher,” he said. “This implicates all Canadians in terms of the precedent it sets.”
For federal political leaders, it’s probably hard to see the political advantage of making it a bigger issue. In Quebec, most of the opposition is in Montreal, but the swing ridings for which they are competing are mostly off the island.
So, Mr. Scheer voiced his opposition in a muted way when he met Mr. Legault in Quebec City in March, saying he would not adopt such a bill at the federal level. His Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, argues Mr. Legault was elected with a mandate to pass such a law.
Mr. Singh expressed a moral objection: “It’s wrong. It’s hurtful. It divides a community,” he said. But some in his own party would be nervous if he says it often. Former leader Thomas Mulcair blamed his 2015 election collapse in Quebec on his stand against a ban on women wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.
Mr. Trudeau, a Prime Minister who claims defending the Charter of Rights as both family legacy and the bedrock of his own politics, has usually answered questions by saying “it’s not up to politicians to tell people what to wear.”
Mr. Pallister said he thinks that phrase almost trivializes the matter. “This goes far beyond that.”
Last week, he asked Western premiers to issue a statement of concern at a meeting hosted by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, but the others balked. In any event, a statement from Western premiers would be more likely to backfire than sway Quebec opinion. Mr. Pallister insisted he’s not trying to disrespect the elected Quebec Premier, but feels compelled to voice his disagreement – and he said that’s “absolutely” the responsibility of federal leaders who feel the same way.
“I would say there has been relative silence on this issue among many that I would hope would speak up,” he said.