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The only problem with the Bill 21 question is how our leaders responded

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says Leaders’ debate question on racism in Quebec was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘offensive’' Trudeau says Leaders’ debate question on racism in Quebec was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘offensive’
WATCH: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on Friday that he was “taken back” by a question on Bill 21 during Thursday’s Leaders’ Debate, saying it was "wrong to suggest that Quebecers are racist." Trudeau said although he’s opposed to the bill that prohibits wearing religious symbols in federal workplaces, he had hard time processing the question and described it as “unacceptable” and “offensive.” – Sep 10, 2021

It is unfortunate that, after two French-language debates with a heavy focus on Quebec issues, another Quebec issue seems to be dominating the aftermath of the English-language federal leaders’ debate.

Mind you, it’s totally fair to ask the federal leaders about Quebec’s Bill 21 and it’s disappointing to see how afraid some of them are to call it out, let alone commit to fighting against the law. If anything, this whole episode has illustrated that we have a problem in this country, and it’s not the wording of questions at leader’s debates.

Bill 21, which is ostensibly about religious neutrality, was passed into law in 2019. The extent to which is prohibits any sort of visible religious symbols in public sector jobs made it an instant lightning rod for criticism. The net effect of the bill is to effectively prohibit religious minorities from working in the public sector.

Read more: What happened during the federal leaders’ English debate? Here are the highlights

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It’s absurd to suggest that a police officer or teacher wearing a turban or a hijab in any way blurs the lines between church and state or would be tantamount to that teacher or police officer trying to push their religious beliefs onto others. Of course, one of the party leaders standing on that debate stage, hoping to be the next prime minister of Canada, wears a turban.

As such, many groups see the law as discriminatory — and it’s hard to disagree with them.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that, “I’m totally against Bill 21. I think in a free society we shouldn’t legitimize or allow discrimination against anyone.” Yet, on Friday, Trudeau declared that it was “offensive” and “inappropriate” to describe Bill 21 as discriminatory. Quebec’s premier demanded an apology from Kurl and debate organizers.

This all stemmed from a question put to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet by debate moderator Shachi Kurl, asking him to explain why his party “supports these discriminatory laws” (referring to both Bill 21 and Bill 96, which deals with language rights). An indignant Blanchet simply rejected the premise of the question.

Read more: Quebec’s Bill 21 again faces questions amid outrage over London, Ont. vehicle attack

Perhaps Blanchet’s response shouldn’t surprise us, but we should expect better from our national leaders. As noted, Trudeau seemed more upset about the wording of the question than anything having to do with the impact of Bill 21. If Trudeau does oppose the law, as he claims, how is it offensive to note that it is discriminatory. If the law isn’t discriminatory, then why would Trudeau oppose it?

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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s response wasn’t much better. He called the question “a little unfair” and agreed with Trudeau’s assessment that it assumes that Quebecers are racist. Here’s the thing: either the law is discriminatory or it isn’t. As much as Trudeau and O’Toole would like to have it both ways, they cannot.

To her credit, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul was willing to call out Blanchet’s position

It’s quite a disconnect, given all of the focus over the past year on issues around racism and Islamophobia, that our would-be prime ministers tread so lightly around such a problematic piece of legislation. That’s especially the case when it comes to Justin Trudeau who has tried so hard to position himself as a champion on all of these issues. It’s easy enough to imagine Trudeau coming down hard on any other province that tried to implement something similar to Bill 21.

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Yes, there are lines to be respected between federal and provincial jurisdiction, but there are also overriding national principles that come into play when we’re talking about minority rights. Certainly we should expect the federal government to be a defender of religious freedom in Canada.

Perhaps we should just accept that both the Liberals and the Conservatives badly want to win seats in Quebec, and that maybe after the election they’ll be prepared to take a firmer stand on Bill 21. But that’s a pretty cynical view of politics in Canada.

We should expect better from Justin Trudeau and we should expect better from Erin O’Toole. Certainly Shachi Kurl has nothing to apologize for.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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