Politicians tip-toeing around Bill 21 during election

Politicians tip-toeing around Bill 21 during election

As published in the Victoria Standard: Sept. 25, 2019.

Quebec exceptionalism is back, although this time it’s secularism versus religion rather than the usual French language issues. As the October election looms, federal leadership candidates are responding cautiously to recent developments in Canada’s second-largest province.

On June 21, the Quebec government passed Bill 21, a new law prohibiting most public sector employees from wearing religious symbols and clothing in the workplace. This includes Christian crosses, Jewish skull caps (kippahs), Sikh turbans and certain face-covering (niqab) and head covering (hijab) garments worn by many Muslim women.

The legislation applies to mainly to law enforcement officials, teachers and others in positions of authority. Unlike the rest of Canada, the ban also stipulates that Quebecers may not receive public services while wearing a face covering. This law is actually more European than Canadian since nations like France and Germany had previously acted to separate church and state.

Justin Trudeau recently announced his intention to delay federal action on Bill 21 until all other legal challenges are resolved. I doubt that a Conservative, NDP or even Green prime minister would have behaved differently, considering the necessity of a delicate approach to vote-rich Quebec. In spite of the four leaders’ unified opposition to the law, favorable opinion polls on Bill 21 suggest the possibility of similar bans elsewhere in Canada.
Bill 21 is popular in Quebec itself and enjoys Canada-wide acceptance among supporters of all parties, with the notable exception of Alberta conservatives. Therefore, Bill 21’s popularity presents a greater challenge for the Liberals, NDP and Green Party than it does for the Conservatives since Andrew Scheer’s stance on the Quebec law reflects the views of his Western supporters. The other three leaders risk alienating voters through public moralizing that contradicts public sentiment.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault invoked the controversial notwithstanding clause to discourage constitutional challenges just before Bill 21 passed into Quebec law. Section 33 of Canada’s Constitution allows the federal or any provincial government to basically ignore any part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for up to five years. Democratic rights, mobility rights and gender equality are protected but the clause can effect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious rights.

The notwithstanding clause originated during the federal-provincial meetings that led to the 1882 patriation of the Canada’s Constitution. While other provinces also support Section 33, it has been used most often by Quebec, the only province that hasn’t signed the Constitution. Perhaps most memorable is Quebec's employment of the notwithstanding clause to entrench the supremacy of French as Quebec’s official language, thus suppressing minority language rights. It bypassed a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that parts of Quebec's language law (Bill 101) “were an unreasonable limitation on the charter guarantees of freedom of expression.”

To protect vital Quebec votes, federal politicians usually avoid reference to that province’s privileged status with the federation. Many Canadians take issue with Quebec’s oversized share of federal transfer payments, funded largely by federal revenue from Alberta’s oil and gas industry. There is some justification for the suspicion that at least part of the separatist movement has benefitted from cynically exploiting Canadians’ fear of national instability and economic upset.

Over the last few decades, Quebec has managed to gradually arrange a form of semi-statehood while avoiding common cause with other equally “distinct” societies like First Nations and Celts. Justin Trudeau and previous prime ministers have voiced their acceptance of Quebec as a nation within Canada. Unlike the rest of bilingual Canada, Quebec is a French-only province with total immigration control and a unique civil law based on the Napoleonic code of France. Ironically, though, while Quebec exceptionalism has been generally divisive, legislation like Bill 21 is overdue in Canada.

In a multi-cultural Canada that still includes Quebec, I see no contradiction between a public service ban on religious symbols and personal liberty. Perhaps it’s time all provinces and the federal government followed Quebec’s example and removed religious trappings from the political and public service realm since expressions of faith are a uniquely private matter.