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Quebec’s Controversial Secularism Law Dogs Leaders On Day 1 Of Campaign

Trudeau left the door open on a question about federal intervention.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speak to media on Sept. 11, 2019.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speak to media on Sept. 11, 2019.

OTTAWA — A Quebec law that bars elementary school teachers from wearing religious symbols at work dogged federal party leaders in different parts of the country Wednesday, the first official day of the election campaign.

After leaders tiptoed around the issue, Quebec Premier François Legault challenged parties to come out and pledge to “never” contest Quebec’s secularism law in court.

The topic crossed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s path shortly after he met with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette at Rideau Hall to ask for the dissolution of Parliament. The law, passed by the Quebec government in June, is commonly referred to as Bill 21.

“As I’ve said many times, I am deeply opposed to Bill 21 in Quebec,” Trudeau said, responding to a reporter asking about the contentious law. “I don’t think that in a free society we should be legitimizing or allowing discmination against anyone.”

Watch: Federal election campaign underway with leaders in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

He told reporters that he’s “very pleased” Quebecers have challenged the law in court. Trudeau stopped short of promising to intervene in the matter, but he left the door open, saying it would be “counterproductive” for the federal government to get involved at this time.

“But, we will continue to monitor closely and evaluate our position,” he said.

The law prohibits individuals in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans, hijabs, crosses and kippahs, on the job. The restriction does not apply to people hired before Bill 21 became law.

Its introduction sparked protests in Montreal this summer. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party campaigned in 2018 on a promise to enact a law on religious symbols in the public sector. His government stymied debate in the National Assembly and used its majority to pass Bill 21 into law.

Opponents say infringes on people’s Charter rights. Legault argues that it is massively popular. Public opinion surveys suggest support for the controversial ban is at 67 per cent, according to a government-commissioned poll cited by the Montreal Gazette.

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women is one group fighting the law, contending it goes “against the declared principles of Quebec for empowering women and advancing equality between men and women.”

Opponents are limited, however, in their legal manoeuvres. Because the law invokes section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (known as the notwithstanding clause) to bypass some Charter rights, lawyers are unable to use swaths of the Charter to argue that the law as unconstitutional.

A legal challenge to suspend Quebec’s secularism law was rejected in July. But hope among groups fighting the law hasn’t been entirely extinguished. Quebec’s Court of Appeal agreed last month to hear the case.

Scheer says Tories wouldn’t do anything at federal level

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, speaking to reporters in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Wednesday, said his party has no intention of intervening in the provincial court case if they form the government.

“We will always stand up for the rights of Canadians and the rights of expression and the rights of freedom of religion,” he said.

When asked if he believes the ban infringes on religious rights, Scheer didn’t give a clear answer, saying the law is one that would not be implemented at the federal level.

“We must respect the sovereignty of Quebecers’ parliament in Quebec City.”

- Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet

The provincial law has already had an effect on members of the public service. Two teachers were recently denied jobs because they refused to remove their religious symbols in the classroom, according to a Quebec school board.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet defended the law, saying it has strong support in the National Assembly and among the vast majority of Quebecers.

“We must respect the sovereignty of Quebecers’ parliament in Quebec City,” Blanchet said in French.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who wears a Sikh turban, was more critical of the law than Trudeau and Scheer, calling it an example of “state-sanctioned discrimination.”

Watch: Jagmeet Singh takes on Quebec’s secularism law by taking off his turban

At his campaign launch in London, Ont., Wednesday, Singh said the ban “upsets” and “saddens” him, calling it a law that seeks to “discriminate people because of the way they look.”

Singh wrapped his response by giving a nod to Quebec’s culture, explaining that learning French enriched his life. He said he’s confident that being an ally for Quebecers on health care and environmental issues will show people “that I am a champion for the people of Quebec and for all Canadians.”

Canadians head to the polls on Oct. 21.

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