Quebec’s controversial religious symbols ban, Bill 21, drew heated discussion on Thursday night at the French-language leaders’ debate, the last time the six main party leaders will come together before the Oct. 21 election.
All of the party leaders, except Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, have decried the bill. But Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau once again was the only party leader to open the door to intervening in the legislation at some point in the future.
Trudeau said at the debate that Canadians “expect” the federal government to be there to defend constitutional rights. He then said Canadians would also expect a federal government to intervene if, for instance, Premier Doug Ford of Ontario wanted to “attack” francophones or if a provincial government wanted to impede a women’s ability to seek abortion services.
Trudeau has said previously that it would be “counterproductive” for the government to intervene at this time while two civil rights groups are currently challenging the law before Quebec’s Superior Court.
“It’s a question where, yes, it’s awkward politically because … it’s very popular,” Trudeau said at the debate on Monday. “But I’m the only one on this stage who has said, yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this.”
Singh has said that his mere presence in Quebec as a man with “a beard and a turban” is a form of opposition against the bill. And he reiterated this on Thursday, saying “I do not want to intervene.”
He continued that he wants to fight against division. “I’m against discrimination,” Singh said. “I know a lot of people face discrimination in their lives. It’s wholly unacceptable, but I want people to get to know me in Quebec and all across the country.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have also said they would not intervene in the legislation, even though they disagree with it in principle. And People’s Party of Canada Leader, and Quebec native, Maxime Bernier has also said he wouldn’t intervene, saying it’s a matter for the people of Quebec and not the federal government.
May also tried to steer the conversation away from Bill 21 and toward climate change, saying that the law is not an issue for a federal election.
“I think that’s an issue for Quebec and Quebecers,” May said. “But right now, please, we have to talk about what’s going to happen in the north of Canada, in the Arctic. People in the Atlantic region, what about farmers?”
For Robert Leckey, a law professor at McGill University who watched the debate on Thursday, it was uncomfortable to watch Singh defend his stance on the law.
“It feels inconsistent to affirm how deeply opposed to it he is, but say he would rather win peoples’ hearts. But not use any of the levers at the disposal of the federal government,” Leckey said in an interview.
As for Bernier’s comments on the matter being purely provincial jurisdiction, Leckey said that is not necessarily the case.
Overall, he said that the issue is significant for all Canadians, and that is already starting to have “very concrete effects.”
“There’s a suggestion that hate crimes or racial discrimination incidents have risen [since it was passed,” Leckey said.
Feds have few options
Bill 21 bans some public servants in Quebec — including prison guards, provincial judges and teachers — from wearing religious symbols at work. This includes religious head coverings like the hijab.
The bill is hugely popular among Quebecers and the government of Premier Francois Legault used the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause in a preemptive effort to shield the law from any potential court challenges.
This means the options for any federal leader to quash the bill — no matter what they promise during the election — are extremely limited.
According to Carissima Mathen, a constitutional law professor at the University of Ottawa, any successful challenge of Bill 21 by the feds would be groudbreaking.
“Unless you can persuade courts to breach new legal ground, there really isn’t an obvious resolution,” Mathen told The Canadian Press in September.
These new legal options could include challenging the bill using sections of the Constitution that the notwithstanding clause cannot override. The feds could also cancel the law outright, but this power hasn’t been used in nearly 80 years and would likely spark outrage from Quebec and other provinces, Mathen said.
Regardless of which party wins on Oct. 21, all of these factors will likely weigh on their decision of whether to intervene.