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Quebec Premier Francois Legault has told federal party leaders to butt out of his province’s discriminatory Bill 21 that targets religious minorities. Tragically, for human rights in this country, they’re all complying with that order.
It was sad to watch Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May figure skate around the issue during last week’s leaders’ debate. They all delivered variants of the same answer: if they were PM their government would not institute or even intervene in a court case to defend freedom of religion in Canada.
Scheer won’t even say he opposes a law that takes away religious rights. Hoping to attract Bloc voters, his war room gleefully pushes out quotes of him defending Quebec’s right to enact it. May’s answer was the strangest: instead of fighting Bill 21, she says she’ll find jobs outside Quebec for those discriminated against. Singh knows Bill 21 would make it illegal for a Sikh wearing a turban to become a police officer in Quebec. Yet, for reasons known only to him, Singh still refuses to say he’d challenge that law.
Host Paul Wells, as moderator, wasn’t supposed to be a participant. In the face of such feebleness, he couldn’t help underscoring that they were all telling someone who loses their job because they wear a religious symbol in Quebec: tough luck, you’re on your own.
Justin Trudeau may have skipped out on the debate, showing a lack of respect for both his supporters and his adversaries, but he couldn’t hide from this issue that has dogged him since the beginning of the campaign. On Saturday he made an unannounced visit to a restaurant in Bloc Quebecois territory and got clobbered by locals. His evasive answers aren’t any more acceptable to those who support Bill 21 than they are to its opponents.
Reading Bill 21 and listening to all of the legislative hearings prior to its adoption, makes it quite clear the primary target of that law is Muslim women, whose religious symbols have been used as political fodder in every campaign in Quebec for over a decade. The law has a whole specific chapter on face coverings, whereas every other religious symbol is referenced with a hysterically vague catch-all.
In 1930s Quebec, anti-semite cleric Lionel Groulx was at the forefront of a Church-sanctioned vilification of Jews. Newspaper articles and cartoons against Jews abounded. Even McGill University imposed a quota on Jews. After the Holocaust, the official target became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In 1946, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis removed the liquor licence of restaurateur Frank Roncarelli because he had posted bail for hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses being persecuted by the government. It took morally courageous people like constitutional scholar Frank R. Scott to take on the all-powerful Duplessis and finally win in the Supreme Court in 1959. That type of moral courage is in short supply in this election campaign.
By his attitude, Francois Legault seems to feel that he too is all-powerful. He boasts that no one has the right to challenge his law because he has a majority of Quebecers with him. A poll by Leger, published Monday, shows that nearly half of Quebecers planning to vote Liberal want the federal government to leave the law as it is.
That seems to have scared Prime Minister Trudeau into submission. His weak “not for the moment” line is wearing thin from both sides. Will Canadians see a “just watch me” moment or will Trudeau just wilt away on this fundamental issue?
Freedom of religion shouldn’t depend on focus groups and polling. It’s a fundamental right, not a popularity contest. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is there to protect all of us.
In order for those rights and freedoms to have real meaning, we need politicians with the courage to stand up and strongly defend them, even when a majority disagrees.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019