Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he strongly opposes Quebec’s law that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, as the issue was heatedly debated across Ottawa on one of the final sitting days in the House of Commons before MPs break for the holidays.
“I don’t think that in a free and democratic society, a person should lose their job because of their religion. That’s the position of our government and our party,” Mr. Trudeau said in Question Period on Wednesday. Quebec’s Bill 21 has been in place since June, 2019, and it bans public servants, including teachers, from wearing visible religious symbols.
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Mr. Trudeau was responding to questions from Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who criticized Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, for calling the bill discriminatory. Mr. Rae had tweeted that “there is a deep, discriminatory meaning to this law. It clearly runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Mr. Rae had been responding to news that a teacher in Chelsea, Que., was removed from her Grade 3 classroom because she wears a hijab, which is prohibited by the provincial law. A number of Canadian politicians denounced the legislation as “discriminatory.”
Mr. Blanchet said Bill 21 has broad support in Quebec and asked Mr. Trudeau if he would recall the ambassador.
Mr. Trudeau said the governing Liberals will side with Quebeckers who he said are upset and disappointed that Fatemeh Anvari lost her job because of her religion.
The two leaders continued the exchange, with Mr. Blanchet saying the Prime Minister is “condoning Quebec bashing” and was defaming legitimate legislation. He also questioned whether Mr. Trudeau would have the courage to challenge the bill in Quebec.
Mr. Trudeau reiterated that Quebeckers stand up for individual rights, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, saying, “We defend those things in Quebec,” and that’s why so many Quebeckers are surprised and disappointed to see Ms. Anvari lose her job.
Mr. Trudeau said on Monday that he would not rule out federal intervention in a legal challenge to the law. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has also said he would support a federal intervention in a court challenge to the bill. And Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said it’s important to recognize provincial jurisdiction.
Quebec Premier François Legault responded to Mr. Trudeau’s comments on Monday by saying he did not know how Ottawa could challenge the bill, given that it is supported by most Quebeckers.
The issue was raised across Ottawa on Wednesday. Conservative Senator Salma Ataullahjan issued a statement calling the law “discriminatory and racist.”
“Instead of ensuring the equality of all people in the province of Quebec, it creates two distinct classes: those who may pursue their career, regardless of their faith, and those who may not.”
Ms. Ataullahjan said she understands it is a provincial law but cannot “in good conscience, as a racialized person and as a human rights advocate, remain silent while fellow Canadians are being blatantly targeted. As a representative of a community, I must be a voice for the silenced,” she said.
Ms. Ataullahjan said by creating a second-class citizenship, the law normalizes the othering of visible minorities. She said the removal of Ms. Anvari has upended the lives of children who, until last week, only saw her as a teacher.
Earlier Wednesday, Conservative MP Mark Strahl told reporters that the Conservative Party should change its approach to the legislation, saying they should challenge the law in court.
“I personally think when people are being targeted because of their religion or the things they wear because of their religion, we should speak out against that as Canadians,” he said. “I think some issues transcend jurisdiction and I think Bill 21 is one of them,” he added.
When asked if the Conservatives should challenge the legislation in court, Mr. Strahl said, “Yes, that would be my position and it’s the position that’s shared by many, many of his colleagues.”
Mr. O’Toole told reporters that he does not approve of the law, but that when it comes to Quebec’s law, it is important to recognize provincial jurisdiction.
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