As the federal election campaign kicked off, Quebec Premier François Legault all but dared the federal leaders to stay out of the court challenges facing Bill 21, formally titled An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State and informally known as Quebec’s most recent attempt at enshrining discrimination against religious minorities into law.
Supporters of the bill will point to European jurisdictions with similar policies, such as France, without noting that France is an expressly secular republic. France’s constitution states in the very first sentence of its first article: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic.” Canada’s Constitution makes no such reference.
But Quebec never signed onto the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, so checkmate, right? Wrong. It makes no legal difference that Quebec never signed on. Quebec is still subject to it. Religious Quebecers who will be discriminated against are also Canadians who have the full benefit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and legal precedent from the Supreme Court of Canada.
This is not Quebec’s first attempt at legislating discrimination. For over a decade now, the province’s political class has been gripped with the notion that religious minorities will ruin Quebec’s secular society. It started off in 2007 over issues of reasonable accommodation. A year later, we had an official report on it, the Bouchard-Taylor report, wherein the authors made several recommendations.
A few years after that, we had the Parti Québécois propose its Charter of Values, wherein anyone who was paid by the government — for example, doctors and civil servants — would be forbidden from displaying “ostentatious” religious symbols. The Charter of Values never came to fruition, and the subsequent Liberal government passed its own law, this time targeting only face coverings. That law lasted less than a year before a Quebec court struck down parts of it.
So nobody should be surprised that Quebec has once again gone down this route with Bill 21. It became law back in June. Our federal election date has been fixed to occur on Oct. 21 so federal leaders have had ample time to work in their Sorkin-esque monologues on fundamental liberties and protecting the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority, yet all we’ve been hearing from them is mealy-mouthed pablum.
Anyone who has seen an electoral map can understand the tactical reasoning behind throwing Quebec’s religious minorities under each campaign bus. Quebec has 78 federal seats, and the bill is wildly popular. (Before English Canada gets high off its own moral superiority here, it’s worth noting that the bill is extremely popular in the rest of the country as well.)
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh could have made this the election where his party doesn’t hold out for Quebec like some sad first-year university student trying to win back a high school sweetheart while they’re home for the summer. Yes, 2011 was momentous. But it’s 2019 now and it’s time to get out there and start swiping right for constituencies that will actually give you the time of day and call you back. Had Singh gone hard on Bill 21, he would have at least been able to campaign in ethnically diverse urban and suburban ridings all over the country with a little swagger.
WATCH: Jagmeet Singh says he disagrees with Bill 21 and what he calls “divisive politics”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is supposed to be the one with deeply held religious convictions himself, committed to upholding religious freedom. And unlike the Liberals, who would have a nearly impossible path to forming government without a hefty contingent of Quebec seats, the Conservatives have a clear path to victory without Quebec, and they’ve done it before. They formed a majority government in 2011 largely without Quebec. But the Tory campaign has decided they’re going to try to court Quebec nationalists on this issue.
WATCH: Andrew Scheer says a Conservative government would not intervene in Bill 21 case
Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau, for his part, has taken the strongest stance of any of the leaders, if one can consider hemming and hawing about not sitting on the sidelines indefinitely as “strong.” Speaking to reporters last week, Trudeau said there are no plans to join in on the current legal challenges of the bill but that he wouldn’t rule out future intervention.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau speaks out against Bill 21
The federal leaders are trying to play chess on Bill 21 while Legault rams them over the head with the board.
In a global political environment mired by rising populism, xenophobic sentiment and authoritarian politicians and policies, Canada’s federal leaders would have had an excellent opportunity to showcase Canadian exceptionalism.
But apparently, principles and politics don’t mix.