Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is standing behind Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s first special representative on combating Islamophobia, as officials in the Quebec government continue to call for her resignation.
Elghawaby, who was appointed last Thursday, has faced criticism since her appointment was announced over an opinion piece she co-wrote in 2019. In the piece, Elghawaby criticized Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans certain public-facing employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.
While the Quebec government says the law is intended to defend secularism — the province’s official policy of separating religion and state — critics like the National Council of Canadian Muslims have called it discriminatory and a law that “causes second-class citizenship.”
Federal cabinet ministers have faced repeated questions about the concerns from Quebec over the past two days and walking into his cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Trudeau said he supports Elghawaby “100 per cent.”
“She has demonstrated, throughout her years of work, an … openness and a rigor that we need right now,” he said, speaking in French.
“I understand that dealing with Islamophobia will require important and sometimes difficult conversations, but we need someone who is knowledgeable, who is deeply grounded, and I know she’s the right person.”
She and co-writer Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, had said in the 2019 op-ed that “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported (Bill 21).”
In a tweet, Elghawaby clarified late last week that she does not believe Quebecers are Islamophobic. However, for officials in the Quebec government, her response has fallen short.
Here’s what you need to know about the outcry.
Why do Quebec officials want Elghawaby to resign?
Quebec’s minister responsible for state secularism has described Elghawaby’s remarks in her 2019 op-ed as “abhorrent” — and her subsequent explanation, he said, was “unacceptable.”
“She must resign, and if she does not, the government must remove her immediately,” Jean-François Roberge said in a statement on Monday.
The op-ed in question was written in reference to a Léger poll, which was published in the Montreal Gazette in 2019. The poll suggested that among the Quebecers who have negative feelings about Islam, 88 per cent supported Bill 21’s push to ban religious symbols for public school teachers.
It also suggested that 28 per cent of those polled had a positive view of Islam, while 60 per cent had positive views of Catholicism.
The poll was published in the Montreal Gazette under the headline “A new poll shows support for Bill 21 is built on anti-Islam sentiment” — and Elghawaby cited that in her column about the controversial legislation not long afterward.
“Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment,” she and her co-author, Farber, wrote at the time.
“A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported the ban.”
Since her appointment, the op-ed has resurfaced and sparked calls for Elghawaby’s resignation from supporters of Bill 21 in Quebec. The day after her appointment, Elghawaby issued a series of tweets clarifying her past remarks.
“I look to unify all Canadians across the country to fight Islamophobia,” she said on Jan. 27.
“I don’t believe that Quebecers are islamophobic; my past comments were in reference to a poll on Bill 21. I will work with partners from all provinces and regions to make sure we address racism head on.”
Still, Roberge has doubled down on his call for her resignation, and former NDP leader Tom Mulcair penned a column in the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday arguing that “it was wrong of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to name Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first special representative on combating Islamophobia.”
“Trudeau says she’s there to fight prejudice and build bridges. She is not in a position to do that and it’s not because of haters, it’s because of what she said,” Mulcair wrote.
“When your job is fighting prejudice and you’ve made statements in the past that sound like a reflection of your own prejudice, you withdraw them and, ideally, apologize. You don’t dig in, or try to explain them away.”
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said on Tuesday he was “deeply hurt” by Elghawaby’s column and said on Tuesday that he had asked for a meeting with her to discuss them.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet announced a planned meeting with Elghawaby for Feb. 1, after telling reporters her remarks were “more divisive than unifying.”
Backlash is 'disappointing,' advocate says
When Elghawaby’s appointment was announced, Stephen Brown, the CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said he “expected some pushback.”
“But the level of pushback and vitriol — It’s surprising and disappointing,” he said.
“I think it’s very hard for anybody to believe that she could honestly be motivated by some deep-seated hatred of Quebecers.”
Had the government appointed someone who was supportive of Quebec’s law, Brown says that individual then “would have zero credibility.”
“They would immediately be denounced by the vast majority of Muslims in the country,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brown says real issues impacting Muslim Canadians are falling under the radar, including continued worries about rising hate crimes in this country.
Quebec’s relationship with religion is historically fraught.
The Catholic Church had a tight grip on the province in the mid-20th century — a reality that ultimately evoked an equally strong rejection in the province of religion’s role in public life. The province embraced its own version of France’s Laïcité model, or its policy of official secularism, which is “quite different” culturally than what exists in the rest of Canada, according to one Quebec-based human rights lawyer.
“They’ve created a sort of new state framework … that is attempting to cleanse from the state apparatus, if you will, any suggestion of religious views,” said Pearl Eliadis, who is also a professor at McGill university.
As the Quebec government defends Bill 21 as a bid to protect this Laïcité principle, the Superior Court of Quebec has raised concerns about its impact on religious communities.
In his 2021 decision, Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard said Bill 21 has “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols but is largely legal and does not violate the Constitution.
Blanchard acknowledged that the law has “cruel” and “dehumanizing” consequences for certain people, many of whom would no longer be able to seek out new jobs in the public service without compromising their beliefs.
“I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that people don’t want to see people who might potentially proselytize … (but) we have no evidence that these people are doing the kinds of things that the secularists in Quebec are worried about,” Eliadis said.
“If we’re going to be restricting fundamental rights, I think it needs to be evidence-based.”
To infer from the 88 per cent statistic alone that the “majority” of Quebeckers were swayed by anti-Muslim sentiment is “a mistake,” Eliadis said. The 88 per cent in question referred to the Quebecers in the survey who already had negative views of Islam and also reported supporting the law.
But, Eliadis added, “she has clarified that she is not saying the majority of Quebeckers hold these views.”
“So that statement has now been made … I think we need to move on from that and take her in good faith, if you will,” she said.
“I wish people would take a breath and give her a chance to do her work, and not assume that ‘Quebec bashing’ was necessarily what was involved … we all make mistakes.”