GATINEAU, QUE. — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called Quebec’s controversial secularism law “awkward” politics during Monday’s federal election debate, and pressed NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to have a stronger position to protect minority rights.
The subject came up during the English-language debate with six leaders representing the main federal parties during a discussion about polarization, immigration, and human rights. Under the law, Quebec public servants in positions of authority, such as teachers and police officers, are barred from wearing religious symbols at work.
Singh was asked by moderator and Althia Raj, HuffPost Canada’s Ottawa bureau chief, why he hasn’t shown “courage” in fighting Quebec’s discriminatory law. The NDP leader responded by gesturing to his orange turban and beard, saying, “I am obviously against Bill 21.”
The bill, which became law in June, applies to religious symbols, such as turbans, hijabs, and crosses. The controversial bill, which polls suggest is popular in Quebec, doesn’t apply to workers hired before the law came into force.
“It probably comes as no surprise that I’m opposed to laws that divide people,” Singh said.
Trudeau praised the NDP leader for speaking “very eloquently about discrimination” in the past before saying it’s “surprising” to hear Singh’s reluctance on the issue.
“Yes, it’s awkward politically,” the Liberal leader said, acknowledging the law’s popularity in Quebec. Trudeau called himself the only one on the stage who has left the door open to possible federal intervention.
“You didn’t even leave the door open,” he said in response to Singh. “That’s not leadership.”
Multiple legal challenges have since been filed in court to try and overturn the law. Human rights advocates have argued that the law disproportionately affects religious minorities. But because the provincial government invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, lawyers are in a bind, unable to cite equality rights to argue the law is unconstitutional.
“Every single day of my life is fighting a bill like Bill 21.”
The NDP leader did not shift his position on the debate stage. Instead, Singh made an emotional appeal.
“Let’s be honest for a second here. Every single day of my life is fighting a bill like Bill 21. Every single day of my life is challenging people who think that you can’t do things because of the way you look.”
It’s a response that the NDP leader has repeated numerous times, including during an interview on CBC News last week.
Debate over Quebec’s secularism law has shadowed leaders since the first day of the federal election campaign. Trudeau’s position is the only one that has markedly shifted from initially being noncommittal to the idea of intervention to being open to it.
Bloc leader calls Bill 21 ‘hardly a polarization issue’
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer repeated that his party would not intervene and that he has no plans to introduce a similar bill on the federal level.
Green Party Elizabeth May said her party opposes Bill 21, but recognizes that it’s a delicate scenario because “we don’t want to do anything that hurts that debate in Quebec.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who joined his peers on stange, has frequently defended the law during the campaign citing its popularity among Quebecers. Blanchet, as well as Quebec Premier François Legault, have urged other leaders to mind their own business and respect the province’s jurisdiction.
“It’s hardly a polarization issue in Quebec,” Blanchet said, citing 70 per cent public support for the law in the province.
Watch: Bloc leader says Bill 21 isn’t a polarizing issue in Quebec. Story continues below video:
People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier chimed in at the end to say he would also not intervene with the provincial law at the federal level.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Singh was pressed repeatedly about Bill 21 by reporters. He was asked if he was apprehensive to take a more forceful position on the issue because it may risk his party’s odds in the battleground province, which boasts 78 federal seats.
The former criminal defence lawyer repeated the same points he made on stage, that he believes the current court challenges should progress without federal intervention.
“At some points when this gets to the Supreme Court, of course any prime minister legally would have to take a look at it,” he said. The Bloc Québécois leader told reporters later that his federal counterparts were obviously aware that English Canada was listening to the debate, and that Quebecers were tuned in as well.
Blanchet credited Trudeau for being consistent, at least, in stating the possibility of intervening as a federal leader despite it being “deeply against who he is and his heritage.” He accused Singh and Scheer of having shifting messages on Bill 21, depending if they’re speaking to Quebecers or not.
“People have a right within the next two weeks to know precisely what to expect from any of those two leaders,” Blanchet said.