Despite efforts by Justin Trudeau and Amira Elghawaby to quiet the uproar in Quebec over her appointment as special representative on combatting Islamophobia, Premier François Legault and federal Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet would still like her removed and, in Mr. Blanchet’s case, the position abolished entirely.
Mr. Legault said in the National Assembly Thursday that the Prime Minister “persists in defending a bad decision, he will live with this bad decision and I think everything has been said.”
Mr. Blanchet initially called for her removal, saying that someone else, with a neutral position on the province’s controversial secularism law, would be a “very serious improvement.” However, he also cast aspersions on the position itself – saying it has been contaminated by a partisan process and cannot be rehabilitated in the eyes of Quebeckers.
Uproar in Quebec over the appointment of the human-rights advocate and journalist last week has largely centred around a sentence in a 2019 opinion piece said to contain anti-Quebec bias. The piece, which Ms. Elghawaby co-authored with former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber, opposed Quebec’s secularism law, Bill 21.
Mr. Farber strongly defended Ms. Elghawaby. “She is probably the finest appointment that the Prime Minister could have made,” he said in an interview Thursday. “She’s wise, she’s thoughtful, she’s courageous. … The thing with Amira is that she recognizes when she has made mistakes and does everything she can to make them right.”
Ms. Elghawaby told The Globe and Mail last week that the line that has raised ire – that a majority of Quebeckers appear to be swayed, in regards to Bill 21, by “anti-Muslim sentiment” – was not her opinion, but rather a description of the findings of a Léger poll. (Ms. Elghawaby declined a request for comment on Thursday).
On Wednesday, ahead of a closed-door meeting with Mr. Blanchet, Ms. Elghawaby apologized to Quebeckers for how her words hurt them. She did not, however, change her position on Bill 21, which she called discriminatory – a position echoed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and others.
Earlier this week, Quebec’s National Assembly adopted a motion asking the federal government to end Ms. Elghawaby’s mandate. And secularism minister Jean-François Roberge renewed calls for her resignation, despite her apology, saying that her comments about the province “resemble racism.”
Bill 21 bans certain public servants – including police officers and teachers – from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs, while at work. In a 2021 decision, Quebec Superior Court largely upheld the law but acknowledged that it has serious and negative – even “cruel” – consequences for those who wear religious symbols in public, and negatively impacts Muslim women “first and foremost.”
At a news conference Thursday, Mr. Blanchet said Ms. Elghawaby does not understand Quebec’s history.
“Because there’s been fingers pointed at Quebec and at Bill 21, and there’s been association between Bill 21 and Islamophobia, all of these things put together – whatever her personal qualities might be – disqualified her,” he said.
While Mr. Trudeau has defended Ms. Elghawaby – saying he stands behind her “100 per cent” – he has also sought to calm the Quebeckers who are upset by her appointment. He emphasized on Wednesday that Quebeckers are ardent defenders of rights and freedoms – and not racist.
In late 2021, Mr. Trudeau said he “deeply” disagrees with Bill 21, adding that “in a free and open society,” someone should not lose their job because of their religion. He also referred, at the time, to Fatemeh Anvari, an elementary school teacher in Chelsea, Que., who was removed from her role in the classroom because she wears a head scarf.
Fareed Khan, founder of the advocacy group Canadians United Against Hate, called it “ludicrous” that anyone appointed to a role to fight Islamophobia would have a neutral position on Bill 21.
“Whether it’s Amira or whether it’s anybody else who has been qualified to fill that position, [they] would have likely already spoken up publicly, and very strongly, on Bill 21,” he said in an interview Thursday. “The reaction by the Quebec politicians shows why this position is absolutely necessary.”
“This outrage is all to play to certain segments of Quebec voters,” he added, noting he is himself a Quebecker.
Mr. Khan also said there’s been a lot of anger within the Muslim community about how Ms. Elghawaby has been treated since her appointment.
NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice, who represents Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie in Montreal, said the Bloc Leader “crossed a line” when he asked not only for Ms. Elghawaby’s removal, but the abolishment of her position.
“I think it shows the true face of the Bloc Québécois. They don’t want anybody to look at what is happening to the Muslim community in Montreal and in Quebec,” Mr. Boulerice told reporters Thursday. “We all know that Islamophobia exists and people are suffering.”
Muslim communities pushed for the appointment of a dedicated federal representative on Islamophobia after the killing in 2021 of four members of one Muslim family – the Afzaals – in London, Ont. Police said the killings were motivated by anti-Muslim hate. In 2017, six Muslim men were killed and another 19 injured in a shooting in a Quebec City mosque, the sixth anniversary of which was marked last weekend.
In recent years, hate crimes reported against Muslims have climbed steeply.
Weeam Ben-Rejeb, a McGill Law student and recipient of this year’s Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec Memorial Award for her commitment to fostering the inclusion of Muslims within the province, was appalled by the backlash Ms. Elghawaby received. A native, French-speaking Montrealer, Ms. Ben-Rejeb said that Quebec must undertake “uncomfortable discussions” to make progress on the Islamophobia that exists in the province.
“The concerted attacks against Elghawaby are extremely disheartening and will discourage many young racialized women from seeking public office,” Ms. Ben-Rejeb said in a statement to The Globe. “If we can’t even call out anti-Muslim sentiments, we will never be able to make meaningful strides toward greater inclusion … anti-Muslim sentiments in Quebec exist, just like in the rest of Canada.”
Frédéric Bérard, a political commentator, doctor at law and course instructor at the University of Montreal’s law school, blamed right-wing media in Quebec for stirring Islamophobia in the province, but said that the nomination of Ms. Elghawaby was too divisive to be successful.
“If you want to really fight for inclusion and against Islamophobia, you can’t choose someone who creates unanimity against her in ten minutes,” he said.
With a report from The Canadian Press