Martin Patriquin: From Calgary, welcome leadership against Bill 21

Les Angryphones du Montreal Gazette soutiennent Calgary contre la loi 21


Calgary councillor George Chahal launched his broadside against the Quebec law for a few reasons, one quite personal.






If you want an indication of the relative spinelessness of federal leadership in the country as to Quebec’s legalized religious discrimination, look no further than George Chahal.



Chahal, a municipal councillor in faraway Calgary, recently sponsored a resolution against Bill 21, Quebec’s so-called “laicity law,” which prohibits certain public sector workers from wearing religious items.



A particular favourite with the province’s ethnic nationalist set, the law attempts to solve a problem Quebec doesn’t have, on the backs of religious minorities. Its breadth and cruelty are astounding. Since the law was enacted in June, at least two teachers were refused contracts because they wore hijabs; another four withdrew their job applications with the English Montreal School Board. Yet another teacher left Montreal to return to … Calgary, as I reported earlier this year.



The Calgary councillor, whose workaday purview is garbage collection, snow removal and the like, launched his broadside against the Quebec law for a few reasons, one quite personal. In 1991, his father Ram Raghbir Singh Chahal, a practicing Sikh, was barred from entering the Red Deer Royal Canadian Legion because he wore a turban.



Chahal is also councillor of Calgary’s Ward 5, home to a relatively young and diverse population with a large Punjabi-speaking population. Finally, he found himself dismayed with the distinct lack of outrage from those federal leaders currently vying for the prime minister’s office.



Chahal has a point. Though the leaders of the four main parties have made a show of being against it when asked, they are quick to say they wouldn’t intervene to challenge the law. This includes NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who couldn’t so much as teach children, guard prisoners or inspect liquor in Quebec because of the turban on his head. (Justin Trudeau went a little further by leaving the possibility of a challenge on the table.)



In this spinelessness lies a simple political calculation. Wretched as it may be, the law is as popular as the Coalition Avenir Québec government that enacted it. And as writer, polemicist, politico and erstwhile Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée has noted with evident glee, many Canadians outside Quebec find stomping on religious rights a boffo idea. Translation: In staying quiet on Bill 21’s discrimination inside Quebec, those federal leaders are protecting their electoral hides outside of it as well.



There are obvious problems with this cowardice. As Chahal pointed out to me, it keeps the law out of the headlines and therefore largely out of the national gaze. Second, it robs moral support from people who are opposed to it — including from Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, whose constituency is home to the lion’s share of the province’s visible and religious minorities disproportionately affected by the law.



“The federal leaders don’t want to alienate any potential voters. But what I would say to them is that their job as elected officials is to represent everybody. Every leader should be standing up and talking about this. I’m doing this partially to make it a topic of discussion,” Chahal told me this week.



He is particularly disappointed in Singh. “It’s extremely disappointing that a person of his background would take that stance. It’s all about election and votes, when leadership is about standing up.”



There have been some encouraging developments in the battle against Bill 21. After first waffling, the EMSB is proceeding with its legal challenge. And two other challenges are underway in Superior Court.



Chahal’s motion, which passed unanimously, comes on the heels of similar motions passed by municipal governments in Victoria, Brampton and Kitchener. The bad news is that our federal leaders care more about their electoral fortunes than a precedent-setting discriminatory law. The good news: governments representing over two million people are taking their place.



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