Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that while he is “deeply” opposed to Bill 21, his government won’t step into the legal challenge taking place in Quebec in order to avoid triggering a fight with the province over jurisdiction.
“I think that it’s important, in the first stages of the work that’s being done right now, to not give the excuse of a fight between Ottawa and Quebec,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister said that by staying out of the fight right now, he can “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.”
Bill 21 was tabled in May 2019 and was adopted into law that June, after the government of Premier François Legault used a parliamentary mechanism called closure to speed its passage.
The law — which bars a range of public servants in roles of authority, including teachers, from wearing visible religious symbols — made headlines again this week when an Muslim elementary teacher in western Quebec was removed from her classroom for wearing a hijab.
The law is facing several court challenges which could last years and eventually make their way to the Supreme Court.
Trudeau said that while he plans to stay out of the fight for now, his government has not closed the door on the possibility of “intervening … at some point in time.”
After working several months as a substitute teacher with the Western Quebec School Board, Fatemeh Anvari said she was asked to apply for a more permanent position teaching a Grade 3 class at Chelsea Elementary School.
Anvari began that job earlier this fall — but after just one month into her new position, she said, the school principal told her she had to move to a posting outside the classroom because she wears a hijab.
“I always said very clearly that I deeply disagree with Bill 21,” Trudeau said. “I don’t find that in a free and open society that someone should lose their job because of their religion.”
The prime minister said that concerns about the implications of the bill have moved from theory to reality and he sympathizes with the parents who had to tell their children why their teacher lost her job.
“I think of the parents of those Grade 3 children in Chelsea who have to explain to their children why a teacher that they loved — who was doing a great job, everyone agrees on that, that she was doing her job very well — lost her job because of her religion,” he said.
At a news conference last week in Ottawa, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Bill 21 must be dealt with by the province alone, adding he has no desire to step on any provincial toes.
Conservatives split on Bill 21
But that position is not being echoed by all of his MPs. Several Conservative caucus members are standing apart from their leader to denounce Bill 21.
In a social media post, Conservative MP Tim Uppal, a Sikh who wears a turban, said he “can’t believe that just minutes away from Parliament, many Canadians, including myself and my children, are not allowed to work in professions of their choice, only because of the way we look.”
Kyle Seeback, another Conservative MP, also said that he could no longer stay silent on the issue.
Premier Legault is still standing behind Bill 21, telling reporters last week at the National Assembly that “the school board should not have hired this person in the first place as a teacher, given Bill 21.”
That position was backed by the seven members of the Parti Québécois, who continued to show support for the CAQ’s position.
“The reason why this teacher doesn’t have a job … is because she doesn’t respect the law,” Parti Québécois’s critic on secularism, Pascal Bérubé, said last week. “The law is for everyone … She tried to make a statement wearing a hijab.”
Bérubé added that Anvari “has a choice to make — her job or religion.”