Green Party Leader Elizabeth May won’t tell her candidates to oppose Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for some public-sector employees — a position the National Council of Canadian Muslims says is “unacceptable.”
While May made her disapproval of the law clear in April by openly condemning it, she has not made it mandatory for the party’s candidates to do the same.
At a town hall on Friday, Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the Muslim advocacy group, called out May on the decision to allow candidates to support the ban.
During an exchange, Farooq asked: “Ms. May, I’m asking you very clearly, will you tell your candidates that they have no business policing what Canadians or Quebecers wear?”
May responded by explaining that the Green Party structure is “very different” than other parties. Unlike other parties, May said, she does not dictate what members have to support or how they have to vote on issues.
“It’s not just a question of one issue at a time where the leader can insist on an issue or not,” she said. “I have no powers to insist that our members of Parliament vote with me, nor do I have any powers to insist on what they say.”
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May said she does insist her candidates share the “same core values,” which include “respect for diversity.” The federal leader added that the party stance on Bill 21 is to oppose it.
Earlier in the exchange, Farooq cited a quote from Green Party deputy leader Daniel Green, which explained that the party has advised candidates who are “uncomfortable” talking about Bill 21 to refuse to comment on the issue.
May said that is the party’s stance.
“If you don’t have an opinion, you’re allowed to say: ‘I don’t have an opinion.'”
She added: “In other words, we want our candidates to be honest, that’s it.”
Farooq also pointed to former NDP candidate Pierre Nantel, who recently defected to the Green Party. In 2017, Nantel suggested to Radio-Canada that then-NDP leadership contender Jagmeet Singh’s turban made him “not compatible” with Quebec. Global News has reached out to Nantel for clarification on his current position.
The Green Party currently does not have any vocal proponents of the Quebec law.
In an email to Global News, the party reiterated its position that candidates are free to form and express their opinions.
“The Green Party does not tell candidates what they can or cannot support.”
Farooq said in an interview with Global News that he hopes May changes her tone on the issue and takes a stronger stance.
“It’s unacceptable that any political party allows candidates to state or to have opinions on the record that they’re in favour of a bill that says that a Jewish person wearing a kippah isn’t allowed to be a prosecutor or a teacher,” he said.
Green Party candidates on abortion
The Green Party has also been caught in a similar controversy over another contentious issue — abortion.
On Monday, May appeared on CBC News’ Power and Politics, where she reiterated she would not “whip votes” on abortion-related issues.
The statements prompted backlash from members of the NDP, which requires members to support abortion rights.
The Green Party later clarified its stance, saying in a statement that “all women must have timely access to safe, legal abortions.”
“Although the leader does not have the power to whip votes, all Green Party members of Parliament must endorse the Green Party’s values, including support of a woman’s right to choose,” it added. “There is zero chance an elected representative of our party will ever reopen the abortion debate.”
The Green Party’s decision to allow candidates to vote their conscience differs from other federal parties, where leaders often dictate which issues candidates must support — and how they should vote.
The Liberal Party, for example, promised in 2015 that its members will have “free votes” with the exceptions of topics directly related to the party’s electoral platform, larger matters such as the federal budget and issues related to Canadians’ charter rights.
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A June 2018 report by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service found that federal parties can still have difficulty deciding where to draw the line between free votes and party discipline.
The report noted that issues of “morality and conscience” have often been free votes — that has included votes on abortion in the past.
In 2006, Conservatives and Liberals were also allowed to vote their conscience on the issue of same-sex marriage. The NDP and Bloc Québécois required members to vote in line with the party’s position.
More recently, in 2016, the vote on medically assisted dying was a free vote for most Liberals, Tories, NDP and Bloc Québécois members of Parliament. Liberal ministers, however, had to vote according to the party policy.