Quebec court decision on Bill 21 poses a conundrum for Justin Trudeau

Seeking re-election In October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau baited his opponents over their lack of commitment to a court challenge against Bill 21, the controversial Quebec secularism law that bans public servants from wearing religious symbols at work.

“I am the only one on this stage who has said yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this,” he said to his political rivals during a debate, “because the federal government needs to protect minority rights, needs to protect language rights.”

“It’s awkward politically,” he acknowledged, citing the legislation’s popularity in Quebec.

That might be an understatement now.

Although the federal Liberals held on to 35 seats in 2019 in the province, the Bloc Québécois nipped at their heels — surging in popularity as they marched in policy lockstep with François Legault’s provincial Coalition Avenir Québec government, including its stance on Bill 21.

The Quebec Superior Court on Tuesday upheld most of Bill 21, citing exemptions only for English-language school boards and elected members of the National Assembly.

Quebec plans to appeal ruling

The provincial government is unhappy with the decision, and the legislation may soon be headed back to court after barely emerging from the latest legal battle.

“There’s only one state here in Quebec, there’s only one law that applies for everybody,” Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told reporters in announcing his decision to appeal the court ruling.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, left, and Premier François Legault shown two years ago. The provincial government intends to appeal Tuesday’s Quebec Superior Court decision on Bill 21, unhappy with the exemptions granted. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

He warned that the decision to exempt English schools from the law could threaten to divide Quebec along linguistic lines and create two categories of people in the province.

Even as its proponents celebrated a partial victory on Tuesday, about 20 demonstrators showed up in front of Legault’s Montreal office.

Samira Laouni, with the organization Communication pour l’Ouverture et le Rapprochement Interculturel, or C.O.R., was among them. “With this law, we are curtailed in our rights and freedoms,” she said, echoing a familiar refrain from groups representing religious minorities and people of colour who have repeatedly denounced Bill 21, alleging it perpetuates systemic racism.

“If we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, we will go to the Supreme Court of Canada,” she said.

Samira Laouni joined about 20 demonstrators in Montreal on Tuesday outside Legault’s office. ‘With this law, we are curtailed in our rights and freedoms,’ she said. (CBC)

The question of whether the federal Liberal government would show up before the country’s highest court is unanswered for now.

“We saw that there was a decision. We recognize that there are legal proceedings underway,” Trudeau said.

“We’re not there,” he said when asked about when the government might intervene.

‘I think that they are afraid of François Legault’

For political scientist Daniel Béland, Trudeau’s biggest hope might be that Bill 21 won’t make its way before the courts again until after Canadians return to the polls, expected sometime this year.

“François Legault remains a popular premier, despite what we saw in other provinces,” said Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

He said that as recently as last month, Legault was behind only B.C. Premier John Horgan for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Béland said the Liberals “paid a price during the last federal campaign because they didn’t do what François Legault asked for, which is to stay out of that discussion.”

“I think that they are afraid of François Legault.”

With the Liberals likely to be banking on capturing more seats in Quebec in a bid to form a majority government, Béland said, Trudeau would have to be more careful on this issue than his rivals.

Yet most of the other major parties approached by CBC News said at this point, they would not challenge the bill.

Parties weigh in on law

“We will not challenge laws passed by provincial legislatures or assemblies in areas of their jurisdiction,” the Conservative Party of Canada said in a statement, noting that it would never introduce this kind of legislation at the federal level.

“I do not support the law,” Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said in a statement, adding she believes it violates universal rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religious expression.

“A Green government led by me would have intervened in support of the legal challenges to Bill 21,” she said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement, “It isn’t a surprise, I am against this law like many Quebecers.” He said the party would follow the situation closely.

With less to lose now that the party has been reduced to a single seat in Quebec, Béland predicted the NDP could eventually choose to speak up more loudly.

“I think it’s a different ball game politically,” he said, suggesting Singh may be worried about what supporters outside of Quebec think of the law.

As for the Bloc Québécois, leader Yves-François Blanchet did not mince words.

A billboard promoting Quebec’s secularism law is shown in Ottawa in 2019. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet echoed the slogan on Tuesday, warning the federal government not to get involved in a legal challenge of Bill 21. (Stephane Richer/CBC)

“I”d like to be polite,” he said, “but what I want to tell [Trudeau] again is: Mind your own business.” He warned the prime minister not to spend taxpayer dollars on a legal challenge of the decision.

“Quebec knows what’s best for Quebec,” Blanchet said, echoing the party’s billboard campaign from the last time he was preparing to square off against Trudeau in an election.

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