They often say that one of the difficulties of discussing racism and prejudice in Canada is our reputation for being “nice.” Our supposed “niceness” acts as a veneer that covers up serious underlying issues.
Not everything in our nation is covered by a nice veneer.
Take Bill 21, Quebec’s so-called secularism law. The law openly forbids public officials in positions of authority such as teachers, judges or police from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, turbans and crucifixes while working.
The law is particularly difficult for those from a religious tradition that prescribes a certain dress code: notably Jews, Sikhs and Muslims — often racialized individuals.
For those unwilling to forsake their beliefs, entire professions such as teaching, or police work are now closed. Thousands of young people have had to abandon their dreams or have been forced to move to another province.
Remember the cringeworthy meeting between Quebec education minister Jean-François Roberge and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai? Following the meeting the minister confirmed that this brave young woman, whose fight for education rights grabbed the world’s attention, would be ineligible to teach in Quebec as she wears a hijab.
A poll conducted by the Association of Canadian studies, meanwhile, found that many Quebecers supported the bill because they held a “negative sentiment towards Islam, Muslims and hijabs.”
As the National Council of Canadian Muslims testified before the Parliamentary Committee studying the bill: “Instead of protecting religious minorities by encouraging them to thrive in any career path they choose, Bill 21 validates and emboldens growing xenophobic sentiment and further isolates minorities. It is sending a clear message of intolerance to difference, stating that those who do not resemble the majority should not be participating in the public sphere.”
Enter Erin O’Toole.
The newly minted leader of the Conservative Party recently met with Quebec Premier François Legault. Commenting on the bill after the meeting he said that “we must respect [Quebec efforts] to protect secularism” and understand the province’s autonomy to make its own decisions. He also added that he had “served in the military with Sikhs and other people, so I understand why it’s a difficult question.”
Actually, Mr. OToole’s service in the military should make this an “easy” question. A quick scan of the Department of National Defence’s rules for soldiers’ dress makes clear allowances for the wearing of turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes and other religious symbols as long as it’s operationally practicable.
Mr. O’Toole might also want to remember his personal crusade to defend the rights of Canadians during his leadership campaign. He promised to “be a champion for religious liberty and conscience rights” and welcome all Canadians into the Conservative Party, “whether you are Black, white, brown, or from any race or creed…”
I get it. This is about votes in Quebec. Turning a blind eye to Bill 21 has become a rite of passage for federal party leaders (although in fairness Prime Minister Trudeau has uttered some vague musings about intervening). You talk a lot about rights and justice but when the subject of the bill comes up you mumble something about provincial autonomy, take your day or two of bad press and be thankful that the public has such a short attention span.
This needs to stop.
Bill 21 is an embarrassment to Canada and its existence is particularly egregious during a time when racial justice has become a public policy priority. Yes, as a former Ontario politician I support provincial rights and the idea of Ottawa using its dormant powers of disallowance to overturn the bill is undoubtedly a bridge too far.
That said, Erin O’Toole could have strongly condemned Quebec’s secularism law and called on the federal government to support those currently challenging it before the courts.
Would it have cost him votes in Quebec? Likely.
But as Mustafa Farooq, the CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims pointed out during a recent interview, it was Erin O’Toole who said that his party would always stand for “doing what is right, even when it is not what is easy.”