The election confirmed that Quebec does indeed have a problem with racism
After an unnecessary, mid-pandemic, $600-million election, Canadians elected a Liberal minority government that looks like the last one.
We did not learn a heck of a lot during the campaign. The Liberals dragged out the same old wedge issues that voters seem all too happy to swallow. The Conservatives, even while trying to seem more moderate, refused to give straight answers to simple questions. And the NDP failed to translate optimism into actual votes.
For an election that Justin Trudeau called “maybe the most important since 1945 and certainly in our lifetimes” there was a decided lack of nuanced policy debate. Maybe Kim Campbell was right, “elections are indeed not the time to discuss serious issues.”
But it may have been one very serious issue — one that no leader wanted to talk about — that decided election night, sending potential Liberal voters in Quebec into the arms of the Bloc Quebecois, and denying Trudeau the majority he so desperately wanted.
That issue is discrimination in Quebec.
Leading off the only English language debate, moderator Shachi Kurl asked Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, “Mr. Blanchet, you deny that Quebec has problems with racism, yet you defend legislations such as Bills 96 and 21, which marginalized religious minorities, anglophones, and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society, but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”
Blanchet was shocked and offended. He responded by rejecting the premise of the question, saying, “The question seems to imply the answer you want. Those laws are not about discrimination, they are about the values of Quebec.”
The next day Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously passed a Parti Québécois motion calling for an apology from the debate organizers and a motion moved by the Quebec Liberals condemning Kurl. Quebec Premier Francois Legault characterized the question as an attack on Quebec.
And the leaders of the federal Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP, seeing the political writing on the wall, called for an apology too.
If there was any problem with Kurl’s question, Jagmeet Singh was the closest to the mark with his criticism, “It’s a mistake to imply that only one province has a problem with systemic racism when it’s a problem everywhere in Canada.”
But here is the thing, Quebec’s Bill 21 is clearly discriminatory. They target visible minorities on the basis or religion and culture. It violates the Charter. It is racist. Full stop.
And despite the truth of Singh’s critique, Kurl was asking a Quebec specific question, to a Quebec specific party. It was fair game.
So, let’s talk about Bill 21, which prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols or any items that would be considered religious. This means symbols like the Jewish kippah, the Sikh dastar or kirpan, and the Muslim hijab are outlawed in government space. Yes, in theory the bill could also prevent a Christian from wearing a cross, but a cross can be worn in a non-visible manner, a hijab or dastar cannot.
The bill also outlaws face coverings, something Trudeau cauterized as an “unjust indignity” designed to stoke anxiety and foment fear — but that was when the Harper Conservatives proposed a similar ban on face coverings in 2015.
There can be no question that Bill 21 disproportionally impacts and targets religious and ethnic minorities, limiting their ability to work and participate in society.
So yes, Bill 21 is discriminatory.
The Quebec government, in invoking the notwithstanding clause to prevent court challenges under ss. 2 and 7-15 of the Canadian Charter, acknowledges that the legislation is discriminatory.
The Quebec Superior Court, also found the bill acts in a discriminatory manner, ruling that “There is no doubt […] the denial by Bill 21 of the rights guaranteed by the Charter has severe consequences for the persons concerned. Not only do these people feel ostracized and partially excluded from the Quebec public service, but in addition, some see their dreams become impossible while others find themselves stuck in their positions with no possibility of advancement or mobility. In addition, Bill 21 also sends the message to minority students wearing religious symbols that they must occupy a different place in society and that obviously the way of public education — at the level of preschool, primary and secondary — does not exist for them. On the other hand, the beneficial effects appear at least tenuous.”
So, back to Kurl’s question.
Blanchet defended Quebec Premier François Legault after the Premier refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism and then he went on the offensive attacking those who criticized Legault.
Blanchet has been a consistent defender of Bill 21.
Bill 21 is discriminatory and acts to marginalize religious minorities.
Was the leaders debate a hot mess? Yes. Did the format foster a good debate? Heck no. Could there have been better questions? Sure. Should there have been a larger discussion of discrimination across Canada? Most definitely.
But was Kurl’s question offensive and worthy of an apology? Not at all.
There were no apologies needed, because elections are the best time to talk about hard issues, even if the truth hurts.
This opinion first appeared in Canadian Lawyer