Global News with Erin Tolley 21 June 2019
Federal leaders are being criticized days after the passing of Quebec’s Bill 21 by advocates who were hoping for a stronger response to the controversial new law.
Advocates say the leaders should have spoken out directly after Sunday night’s passing of the controversial bill, which prohibits some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, turbans and kippahs.
Balpreet Singh from the World Sikh Organization of Canada said that federal leaders should have “come out strongly” against the bill.
“It’s all very strange and something you wouldn’t expect in Canada, and the strong reaction we expected from our politicians has not been there,” Singh added.
“I think they’ve checked the box, they’ve made their position known that they don’t like this. But this should be denounced, it should be challenged.”
Global News reached out to federal party leaders’ offices via email, asking whether the leaders had concerns about the bill and any plans to raise them publicly.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s office did not offer a new comment, only stating that his position on the topic is known and has not changed. Global News was instead referred to statements made by cabinet members on the issue since the bill’s passing.
One such quote, by Justice Minister David Lametti, read: “We’ve been clear from the outset that we don’t believe it’s up to a government to tell people what they should wear or what they shouldn’t wear. We believe that Canada is already a lay state, so a neutral state, and that’s reflected in our institutions. We’re going to defend the charter. We’re the party of the charter and we’re going to defend it.”
Several other members of the Liberal caucus have been more outspoken about the bill, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
In March, just before the bill was tabled, Trudeau signalled that he had concerns the bill infringed on religious freedoms in the country.
“Canada, and indeed Quebec, are places where we are a secular society, we respect deeply people’s rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion,” the prime minister said at the time.
“It is unthinkable to me that, in a free society, we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion,” he added.
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh voiced concerns about the bill on Tuesday when asked by reporters outside the House of Commons.
“It’s deeply saddening,” the NDP leader said on Tuesday. “This is a bad decision. It’s wrong, it’s hurtful, it divides a community.”
The NDP leader said he will encourage people to “stand against it.”
Later on Wednesday afternoon, Singh reiterated those sentiments on Twitter.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s office did not respond to emails sent by Global News.
In March, however, Scheer spoke out against the bill while in Quebec.
“I can tell you, as prime minister, I would never present a bill like that at the federal level,” Scheer said, according to iPolitics.
Amira Elghawaby of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said some federal responses have been “very disappointing.”
“We need to see all political leaders, all elected leaders, stand against any curtailment of human rights,” she said.
“If our political parties aren’t able to condemn this curtailment of freedoms, then I think that is a real disappointment for the millions of people in this country who believe that Canada is a democracy where we all have the right to practice our religion and have freedom of expression.”
Why politicians may be reluctant
But speaking out on the bill is not so simple, University of Toronto political science professor Erin Tolley explained to Global News.
“There’s an election coming, and this is not exactly the type of issue that is easy to talk about in a soundbite and would be seen as politically winning,” she said.
Tolley noted that Bill 21 combines two topics that federal leaders don’t like talking about — Quebec’s provincial politics and religion.
“Both of these issues are hot-button issues so it puts them in a difficult place because there is the moral argument, but then there’s the political argument and what is going to advantage them,” she said.
And while weighing whether speaking out will advantage them, Tolley said leaders look at how Canadians are reacting to the problem. In this case, the professor noted there isn’t much pressure from the general population.
“Politicians take their cues from the public so the fingers should just as easily point back at the public, not just political leaders,” she said.
Leila Nasr, who works with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, noted that part of the problem is a lack of public awareness about the bill.
Nasr said that NCCM, which is part of a group that launched a court challenge against Bill 21 this week, is trying to make Canadians more aware of the impacts the bill will have.
“I think that people don’t understand the full impact and nature of this law,” she said. “We’re hearing from folks on the ground there are a lot of misconceptions about what it actually means and what the implications on the daily lives of people of faith are going to be.”
Nasr added that while it’s important all of Canada understands this bill, the organization’s focus is on Quebec itself.
“We’re really trying to focus our work in Quebec where ultimately we think that things can shift and changes can be made.”
Public opinion on Bill 21
An Angus Reid poll conducted in May showed that about two-thirds of Quebecers support the bill at 64 per cent.
Forty-three per cent of Quebec respondents also believed it would be “appropriate” to fire those who disobey the law from their jobs. The same percentage of respondents say it would be “inappropriate,” while 14 per cent are unsure.
However, 48 per cent of Quebecers also believed the bill would have a negative impact on relations with minorities and the government.
Outside the province, support for the bill is notably lower — 52 per cent disapprove of the move while 37 per cent approve.
The Angus Reid poll cited in this story was conducted online from April 26 to 30, 2019 by 1,525 Canadian adults, including 400 Quebec residents. It is considered accurate with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points and 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.