Federal leaders bow to Francois Legault on Bill 21

Legault asked them to stay out of legal challenges 'forever.' For now, none of them will get in his way

None of the major federal party leaders has said he or she plans to take part in a legal challenge against Quebec’s law that bans some public sector employees from wearing religious symbols.

At the first leaders’ debate, moderator Paul Wells asked Elizabeth May, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh whether they would respect Quebec Premier François Legault’s request for federal party leaders to stay out of the ongoing legal challenges to Bill 21.

The controversial law, passed in June, bans provincial employees such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols like the hijab, turban or kippa. The law has been criticized as discriminatory and as stifling of freedom of religion.

While all three leaders expressed disagreement with the bill, none offered to intervene in any official capacity.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, articulated her opposition to the bill, describing it as “clearly an infringement of human rights.” But she clarified that it was best to “leave Quebec alone,” and added that she would find jobs for those who leave the province after losing their livelihoods as a result of this law.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh described the bill as “legislated discrimination.” But while he said that he supported the legal challenge in Quebec and wanted to send a message to Quebecers to “celebrate their identity,” Singh did not make any concrete commitment to ensuring that they will have the legal right to do so and remain employed.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was the sole party leader who didn’t directly criticize the bill during the debate. Scheer said he has always been “very clear” that his party would stand up for individual liberties but that “ultimately, the courts will make a decision” on the future of Bill 21, referring to a legal challenge currently under way in Quebec.

Legault made the request for federal leaders to stay out of legal challenges “forever” on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked whether his government would get involved and responded that he was “deeply opposed” to the bill, but added that “at this time, I feel it would be counterproductive for the federal government to engage in this process.”

Those three words—“at this time”—suggest that Trudeau may explore more options down the line, says Jack Jedwab, president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. But what was interesting for Jedwab during the debate was watching Scheer’s balancing act in supporting individual rights without outwardly criticizing the law.

“He isn’t going to come out and say, ‘Look, I don’t like Bill 21,’ ” says Jedwab. “He’s not going to say that because a lot of Quebecers whose votes he hopes to secure like Bill 21.”

The tenor of Scheer’s message on this issue is a marked departure from Stephen Harper’s campaign in 2015, which included banning niqabs at citizenship oath ceremonies and telling the CBC that he would consider a niqab ban for federal public servants. Jedwab says Scheer paid attention to those hard-learned lessons, and is trying to have it both ways—attract votes from Quebecers who support Bill 21 without alienating potential voters in Ontario, who rejected Harper’s 2015 tactics.

“Can he toe that line down the road?” says Jedwab. “That will depend on whether this issue will have any more traction.”

Where Scheer has been consistent has been in staying out of matters within provincial jurisdiction, Jedwab adds.

“It’s all well and good to say you are a strong, dedicated, loyal, committed supporter of these rights, but you won’t get involved when it’s on matters of provincial jurisdiction. Somewhere in there, there’s a contradiction that needs to be reconciled.”


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