The Ontario Provincial Legislature at Queen’s Park in Toronto. Wikipedia

Bill-21 facing increased opposition

By 
  • November 22, 2019

OTTAWA -- Opposition to Quebec’s controversial Bill-21 continues to grow, with Quebec teachers and the Ontario government being the latest groups to denounce what is being called a violation of fundamental rights. 

Claiming that Bill-21 violates the freedom of religion and conscience of teachers, a suit was filed Nov. 6 on behalf of 45,000 members of a Quebec teachers’ union. The union is seeking to have the law, which bans most public sector workers from wearing clothing and religious symbols at work, struck down as unconstitutional.

In Ontario, MPPs from all parties — the governing Conservatives, NDP and Liberals — supported a motion in the provincial legislature that states the Ontario government opposes “any law that would seek to restrict or limit” religious freedoms. Although the motion, introduced by Liberal Michael Coteau on Nov. 7, did not specifically mention Quebec, it was a clear response to Bill-21.

The motion states: “Ontario and its government shall oppose any law that would seek to restrict or limit the religious freedoms of our citizens; and, that Ontario’s Legislature should affirm that we value our diversity and assert that we shall promote and protect free expression and the rights of religious minorities, consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

In addition to the suit from the Quebec teachers’ union, Bill-21 is being challenged by a Montreal school board and a religious rights group. 

Speaking to Canadian Press, a union leader said the bill disproportionately affects Muslim women who are teachers. Sylvain Mallette said the law should be declared “unenforceable, invalid, inoperative and void.”

These latest actions come as growing numbers of politicians outside Quebec are criticizing the law as an affront to the principle of religious freedom. As well, other communities such as the City of Brampton in Ontario and politicians such as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi have spoken out, joining human rights advocates and religious communities, including the Catholic Church, in condemning the Quebec law.

Quebec invoked the five-year notwithstanding clause to shield the law from challenges.

“I believe that it is incumbent upon us as members of the Ontario legislature to convey with much clarity to all religious minorities in our province that we stand with them to defend their rights and freedoms and that Ontario will never pursue a law such as Quebec’s Bill-21, which restricts or limits the freedom to express religious belief,” Coteau said.

The Ontario motion came on the same day that a former top aide to a Conservative prime minister warned English Canada to stop criticizing Quebec’s law.

In an opinion column published in the Globe and Mail, Peter White, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, called criticism of the Quebec law a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“You are playing with fire, and your knee-jerk reaction to legislation supported by a vast majority of Quebeckers risks starting a major conflagration that might consume our country,” White wrote.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has raised the possibility of the government assuming a role in challenging the Quebec law because “Canadians expect” the federal government to stand up for all Canadians’ constitutional rights, the federal government is not involved at this time in any of the existing court challenges.

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