Quebec’s Bill 21 is once again facing questions as the country grapples with the horrific vehicle attack on the Muslim family in London, Ont., on Sunday that officials say was targeted because of their faith.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal leaders urged Canadians to reject racism and hatred towards Muslims in speeches on Tuesday, but he is also being pressed about his stance on Bill 21.
“I think it is extremely important to recognize that provinces have the right to put forward bills that align with their priorities. I think people have a right to question those and go to court to defend their rights, as is happening right now,” he said when asked whether the bill encourages discrimination.
“I think there are going to be reflections about a number of pieces of legislation, including Bill 21, as we move forward out of this pandemic where people have spent a lot of time wearing masks and also understand how important it is for all of us to fight against intolerance and Islamophobia.”
Trudeau maintained that while he disagrees with the bill, it is up to the people of Quebec to challenge the legislation in court if they feel it is infringing on their rights.
Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal and Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother died on Sunday after police say a pickup truck deliberately mounted the sidewalk they were on and struck the family of five while they were out for a walk.
Nine-year-old Fayez Afzaal suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Trudeau has condemned the attack as a “terrorist” act though police have not laid terrorism charges in the case at this point, and it is unclear whether they will do so.
Bill 21 is the provincial legislation in place in Quebec that bars the wearing of religious symbols by some public service workers in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers while on the job.
Premier Francois Legault‘s government has hailed the legislation as essential to maintaining secularism, which is the policy of strict separation of religion and the state that has broad support in Quebec.
Critics of the bill argue that it disproportionately targets Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab, and effectively treats them and other religious minorities as second-class citizens.
Amira Elghawaby, a human rights advocate, urged politicians to speak out against the bill.
“It is absolutely imperative for every single politician, every leader to speak absolutely — without any type of nuance — to say that Bill 21 is a racist bill. It is discriminatory,” she said.
“Some people have better opportunities than others simply because of their religious practice. That is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s contrary to our democracy. It is an attack on it, in fact. And we need to hear that loud and clear from our elected leaders.”
The renewed questions around the legislation saw Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet on Wednesday accuse anglophone columnists and media as treating Bill 21 as a scapegoat, and that Quebecers are “tired of being treated like racists.”
Legault also faced questions on Tuesday and similarly suggested concerns are misplaced. He has staunchly defended the legislation and invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield it from certain constitutional challenges.
“I think Quebecers know well the difference between a mask to protect yourself against a virus and a mask that is worn for religious reasons,” Legault said, speaking in French during provincial question period. “We know that a majority of Quebecers agree with Bill 21, and agree with banning religious symbols for people in positions of authority.”
He added Trudeau should respect the will of the majority of Quebecers.
But Canadians need to understand the hatred that leads to what police have described as a targeted attack against a Muslim family doesn’t just come out of nowhere, said Mustafa Farooq, chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“They don’t just happen out of a vacuum. They happen in a context. They happen most clearly driven by violent Islamophobia but they’re certainly not helped by systemic forms of xenophobia, discrimination and exclusion,” he said. “And that can very clearly be seen in Bill 21.”
Farooq said his organization is continuing its work to support the fights against Bill 21 in court. He said he would like to see the federal government get involved in those cases.
The NCCM and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association pledged last month to appeal the April ruling by a Quebec Superior Court judge that largely upheld the law despite acknowledging it violates the rights of Muslim women and has dehumanizing consequences for those who wear religious symbols.
That ruling did strike down parts of the bill concerning English-language school boards in the province, and members of the provincial legislature.