Calgary city council has voted unanimously on a motion that formally opposes Bill 21, legislation in Quebec that prohibits civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, like hijabs and turbans, at work.
The motion, put forward by Ward 5 councillor George Chahal, calls the legislation divisive and discriminatory.
“I think this is a strong message to the province of Quebec that our city council, like others, opposes Bill 21 and we all need to stand together against this discriminatory bill,” Chahal said.
“It affects many in Quebec but it also affects all of us in Canada, so it was really nice to see a unanimous council vote on this issue.”
During debate on the motion, many Calgarians from several religious faiths sat to observe and support Chahal’s motion, including his father.
According to Chahal, his father was told to leave a legion in Red Deer for wearing a turban in 1991.
“He’s been through a lot, just like many others have throughout this country,” Chahal said. “So it was really special to have him here to be a part of this and witness this.”
Prior to passing the motion, Ward 3 councillor Jyoti Gondek added an amendment that the city reach out to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination to take action on Bill 21 with a Canada-wide initiative.
The motion was signed off by eight councillors and Mayor Naheed Nenshi before being read to council chambers, but some on council were concerned that the statement would bear no teeth and falls beyond council’s jurisdiction.
“Discrimination has no jurisdiction, it’s all of our responsibility to speak up against discrimination and racism across Canada,” Chahal said.
LISTEN: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi joins Charles Adler to discuss city council’s vote to oppose Quebec’s Bill 21
Mayor Nenshi also spoke prior to passing the motion on Monday night, saying Bill 21 deliberately targets people of many faiths including Muslim women, Sikhs who wear turbans and Jewish men who wear the kippah.
He told council he is embarrassed for not raising the issue of Bill 21 at a meeting earlier this spring with other big city mayors after a conversation about the legislation with Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, in which she expressed she felt isolated in the fight against the bill, as per Nenshi.
“What I should’ve done is gone back into the meeting and banged my fist on the table and said ‘we need a statement from all mayors supporting Madame Plante in the work she’s doing, and I didn’t do that,” Nenshi said.
“Well, it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Nenshi said Calgary council openly opposing the legislation also sends a message to Calgarians of minority faiths.
“It’s important for us to be able to make a stand to tell our own citizens of minority faiths that we stand for them and we stand by them, to say that we stand for a nation that believes in its own Charter of Rights,” Nenshi said. “So it’s absolutely valid for us to have a conversation about this.”
The bill is being challenged in the courts by minority rights groups, including the World Sikh Organization (WSO), which has been granted intervener status in the challenge.
Although some may see the motion as a small step, WSO Alberta vice-president Tejimder Singh Sidhu believes its an opportunity to spread the conversation around discrimination and human rights across the country.
“It’s to make sure that we don’t normalize this discrimination that Bill 21 is setting the precedence, and we want to make sure that conversations happen in all levels of government to make sure that we can all collectively speak up against this discrimination,” Sidhu said.
Sidhu hopes to see federal leaders currently on the campaign trail take a stance on Bill 21.
“Being quiet is not acceptable, we need them to take a strong stance against this and make sure the rights of all Canadians are being upheld.”