The leaders of Canada's federal parties at the national English language debate on Oct 8, 2019.

Federal leaders tread lightly on Bill 21

  • October 18, 2019

OTTAWA -- Catholics and others of faith who have been stunned by the anti-religious freedom nature of a recently enacted Quebec law are not getting much support from Canada’s federal party leaders.

Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 became law in that province in June and all public opinion polls in Quebec have shown the law has widespread public support there. Under the law’s regulations, all public workers in Quebec such as teachers and police officers and other representatives of the state are banned from wearing any religious symbols while performing their duties which means that a Catholic teacher, as an example, can not wear a crucifix.

Voters were out of luck if they were hoping federal leaders would take a stand against Quebec’s religious symbols law in the final leadership debate of the campaign held in French on Oct. 10.

All the federalist leaders, except for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said the issue of Quebec’s religious symbols law is a provincial matter that they and any government they lead will stay out of.

In fact the Green Party’s Elizabeth May says even talking about Bill 21 during a federal election takes away from her more pressing issue — global climate change. “I think that’s an issue for Quebec and Quebecers,” she said.

While Trudeau, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh all expressed disagreement with the content of the Quebec law, only Trudeau indicated that a government led by him may eventually take action through the courts. The province of Quebec has invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution in an effort to shield the law from court challenges.

However, exactly what a Canadian government led by Trudeau would be prepared to do is vague and not something he has addressed in detail. Trudeau has pointed out there are court challenges to the law already underway at the Quebec Superior Court level and any federal government intervention would only come, if at all, after those cases are dealt with.

“It’s awkward politically because it’s very popular,” Trudeau said of Bill 21 and support within that province for the law. “But I’m the only one on this stage who has said, yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this.”

At the recent Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ plenary assembly in Cornwall, Ont., a Quebec bishop conceded during a discussion about religious freedom issues that the Quebec law is “extremely popular” in that province.

Rabbi Reuben Joshua Poupko, who is from Montreal and participated in the CCCB’s religious freedom panel discussion in September, said that Bill 21 enjoys “overwhelming support” across Quebec and that Quebec’s secularism debate has “poisoned the religious environment.”

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