Like many Canadians (both within and outside of Quebec), Gee takes deep offence to the legislation which prevents Quebeckers in positions of public authority – including teachers, transit workers, prosecutors, etc. – from wearing religious symbols or attire in the workplace.
As he explains: “That such a thing could have happened in 21st-century Canada almost defies belief… There is no evidence at all that a teacher in a hijab or a cop in a turban somehow threatens the secular status of the public service, the gains of the Quiet Revolution, or the Quebec way of life.”
He is therefore delighted that a number of Canada’s big city mayors have recently spoken out strongly against the law, especially since federal leaders have largely held their tongues.
Gee acknowledges the common objection to the mayors’ posture. When anglophones from outside of Quebec criticize that province’s legislation, there is a risk that “their campaign could blow up in their face, leading Quebeckers to rally around the fleur-de-lis and lowering the odds of overturning the law through Quebec’s internal political process.”
Prime Minister Trudeau, who has recently expressed his deep personal opposition to Bill 21, argued similarly in an interview with the CBC.
He was not involving the federal government in legal action at this point to “ensure that it is Quebeckers themselves” making the case to the Quebec government that the law is discriminatory, without giving an “excuse to the Quebec government that this is federal interference.”
Gee’s response is unwavering:
“The argument has been wrong before and it is wrong now. This is a matter not of politics or strategy but of principle, and the principle – that no Canadian should face discrimination on the basis of religious belief – could hardly be more important. The mayors are right to take the stand. It’s never a bad time to speak up about rights.”
Such a position might make some readers feel good inside, but it’s not going to change the mind of the Quebec government.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the mayors should stay silent.
I would much prefer that the $100,000 Brampton City Council has pledged to support the legal fight against the legislation be spent on a public relations campaign welcoming any and all Quebeckers to move to Brampton (or Toronto, or Calgary, or London, or anywhere else in Canada for that matter) and apply for any job that suits them.
Quebec’s religious minority communities need to know that there are nine other provinces and three territories that would be delighted if they chose to teach, serve as police officers, or practice medicine in their jurisdictions.
It seems to me that this sort of positive campaign would send a much more practical message to Quebec Premier François Legault and his supporters.
Discrimination on the basis of religion is not just morally deplorable, it’s also a terrible business strategy, especially in a province that is already desperately short of health care and other public sector workers.
In sum, Bill 21 must be contested in the courts but, at this point, that battle is best left to Quebeckers.
Individual Canadians are welcome to support the current legal challenge, but municipal leaders might best demonstrate their opposition to the legislation by letting those who have been disenfranchised know that there are jobs waiting for them across the rest of the country.
A mass exodus of Quebeckers might not convince the entire provincial political establishment that Bill 21 is wrong, but it will certainly send a practical message that needs to be heard.
For a summary of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s campaign against the legislation, see here. To understand why nearly 2/3 of Quebeckers support Bill 21, see this thoughtful article by André Pratte.
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