Bill 21, Quebec’s law that forbids most public employees from displaying any religious symbols like a turban, a Magen David or a hijab, may become an issue in the federal election. On CBC Radio’s political program The House last weekend, MPs representing the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties all took effectively the same position: the law is discriminatory but provinces have the right to proclaim their own laws and, what’s more, the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause means Quebec can pretty much do whatever it wants.
There is a political calculation in all this, of course. Many Quebeckers support this law and any federal party needs to appeal to a chunk of these voters in order to succeed in the province during next month’s vote. As a result, party leaders are mostly making the right noises about this discriminatory law, while hoping to move on to the next topic ASAP.
With federal leaders basically throwing up their hands on the issue, which calls into question the most fundamental rights of Canadians of all religions, what can be done?
One individual interviewed on the program is a teacher who is Sikh. Her choice was to move from Quebec to British Columbia, where she could continue her chosen profession without diminishing her religious beliefs, which include wearing a turban.
If federal leaders will not act forcefully, perhaps leaders in the provinces outside Quebec can do something. Throughout history, Canada has been enriched by refugees and immigrants who sought freedom and opportunity – our gains roughly equating the loss to their places of origin. Why not apply the same principle to inter-provincial relations?
Perhaps provinces like British Columbia should roll out the welcome mat for teachers, school administrators, wildlife officers, Crown prosecutors and other civil servants from Quebec who no longer feel welcome there. Actively recruiting these experienced professional people of different cultures and religions would strengthen our communities and send a message to Quebec that cultural difference is an asset, not a liability.
In the absence of forceful federal leadership on this front, it would be encouraging to see provincial governments stepping up where they can.