Opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21 is fanning nationalist flames

The fact that Fatemeh Anvari was hired to teach Grade 3 in Chelsea, Que., then reassigned to an out-of-classroom “inclusion-and-diversity literacy” program, has ignited debate of Bill 21 that could reawaken Quebec’s nationalist genie.

For Quebec Premier François Legault, that Anvari wore a hijab (an Islamic head covering) on the job was reason enough for the Western Quebec School Board to fire her.

Anvari says she wears the hijab, not because her religion forces her to, but because it expresses her identity.

That a majority of Quebecers support Bill 21 is proof enough of its validity, says Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois in Parliament, who contends that opposition to the law — which bans the wearing of religious signs by authority figures, including elementary-school teachers — amounts to “Quebec bashing.”

Still, support for Bill 21 in Quebec isn’t unanimous. As McGill University philosophy professor Jocelyn Maclure tweeted, “Dear Premier François Legault, I implore you to stop suggesting that criticism of Bill 21 is against secularism.”

Now, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, both former leaders of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, have been given the green light by their respective city councils to contribute $100,000 to a court challenge of Bill 21.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek is also considering using taxpayers’ money to challenge the law.

Because of opposition from the Quebec Liberal and Québec solidaire parties, Bill 21 was adopted in 2019 under time allocation that limited its debate. It includes two clauses that override rights guaranteed in both Quebec’s and Canada’s human-rights charters.

Legault has said Bill 21 would end the debate in Quebec of the display of religious “signs” such as the hijab, and has cautioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not to intervene by opposing it.

Trudeau hasn’t done so explicitly, but in a year-end interview with La Presse Canadienne, he said: “I am telling the people who are contesting the law in the courts that they should continue to do so.”

On CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live, Trudeau went further: “I am not taking off the table intervening, at a future date, in a legal challenge.” 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who made no mention of it during his election campaign, now says Ottawa should intervene in the case that’s now before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

And while he’s said the fate of Bill 21 is something for Quebecers to decide, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said his party is reviewing whether Bill 21 is “unfair.”

Conservative MPs from Quebec tend to support Bill 21, while some Tory MPs and senators from outside Quebec, along with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, have called it discriminatory.

An editorial in Montreal’s La Presse+ on Monday urged mayors across the country who are considering chipping in to the legal challenge of Bill 21 to “keep your ratepayers’ money for your municipal services.”

“You are very, very far from your fields of jurisdiction,” wrote Philippe Mercure, while also agreeing that Bill 21 “divides (Quebec) society and gets around the rights charters, without demonstrating there is a serious or pressing issue to justify this.”

The good intentions of the three mayors who oppose Bill 21 actually fan the flames of Quebec nationalism and harden opinions, Mercure wrote.

La Presse+ columnist Yves Boisvert wrote last week that Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity (Secularism) of the State, hasn’t actually made Quebec more secular.

“It already was (secular), legally, politically, (and) socially,” Boisvert wrote, noting that the Quebec government favours no religion.

“The genius of the Legault government, you could say, has been to appropriate secularism, to redefine it,” thereby creating a new world of “pro-seculars and others,” he continued.

In the National Post, former senator André Pratte wrote that opponents of Bill 21 in English Canada have fallen into a “separatist trap,” and if the Supreme Court were to rule against it, the anger and frustration of Quebecers would reach levels not seen since the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.

After English Canada rejected the notion that Quebec formed a “distinct society,” polls suggested that Quebecers would vote in favour of separating from the rest of Canada in a referendum.

But then-premier Robert Bourassa, a committed federalist, played for time, and the anger faded.

While Legault says he’s put the notion of independence behind him, his faith in federalism “remains suspect,” columnist Michel David wrote in Le Devoir.

“Those who fear (Legault) will remain faithful to his former pro-independence convictions, and that he’s simply waiting for the right time to come out of the closet, are as numerous as those who wish he would,” David wrote.

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