Editorial: Trudeau should defend Quebec’s minority faiths against Bill 21


There are compelling reasons for Justin Trudeau to steer clear of the bitter struggle between the Quebec government and the province's religious minorities.

Quebec's notorious Bill 21 that bans the wearing of religious clothing for many public sector workers enjoys the solid support of most Quebecers, many of whom helped Trudeau eke out his narrow victory in last month's federal election.

Should the prime minister oppose this ugly piece of legislation, he would alienate many of these voters. He would also ignite an open conflict with Premier Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec government and the recently-revived Bloc Québécois in Ottawa which both champion the law.

In addition, an activist Trudeau might even boost the fortunes of his Conservative, New Democrat and Green rivals who have shamefully promised to let Legault have his way. So yes, there are many strong arguments for Trudeau staying out of this fight.

But there is one far greater and ultimately overwhelming reason for him to step into the fray on the side of Quebec's religious minorities.

The basic human rights of thousands of Canadians are now being violated on a daily basis. The aggressor is a powerful, narrow-minded provincial government.

Quebec's religious minorities, including Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, need a defender. Trudeau's federal government must assume this role. More than anyone, it speaks for this nation.

The hurtful, harmful status quo must not stand. Bill 21 prohibits teachers, police officers, judges and prison guards, along with those in many other public sector occupations in Quebec, from wearing religious attire such as a turban, head scarf or kippah in their workplace.

That is a clear violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protects religious liberties. The Quebec government as much as admitted this when it invoked the charter's notwithstanding clause to insulate Bill 21 from any legal challenge.

Even so, Bill 21 now faces several court challenges, and no wonder. The violation of human rights is real, not theoretical.

Already, Muslim women have turned down teaching positions for which they were hired in Quebec, rather than remove the hijab they consider an essential part of their faith. Already Muslim women have left Quebec and moved to other parts of Canada where they will not be forced to compromise their beliefs in order to earn a living.

This should not be happening in Canada in 2019. The experience in other provinces where turbans and hijabs are routinely worn by public sector workers without any problem proves Bill 21 is unnecessary.

It was appalling that in the recent federal election campaign not one party or party leader would promise to use the federal government's formidable powers to defend Bill 21's victims. So hungry for Quebec votes were these politicians that they turned blind eyes to the suffering of Quebec's minority faith groups.

Trudeau, at least, left the door open for possible action when he said in the English-language debate that he "might" do something about Bill 21. "Might" should become "will."

The federal government should become an intervener in the court challenges and, in addition, fund those legal actions. Trudeau should also be able to count on the support of the Conservatives, NDP and Greens when he intervenes. He should not have to act alone.

It's easy to look back in anger at the long list of human rights violations throughout Canada's history. It's harder to have the mental clarity, moral conviction and political courage to call out a major human rights violation happening today.

We sincerely hope these virtues are plentiful in Canada's newly-elected Parliament.