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Chantal Hébert: Trudeau has a choice to make about Quebec’s secularism debate

Chantal Hébert: Trudeau has a choice to make about Quebec’s secularism debate
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It is not only on the pipeline front that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a politically critical call to make in the lead-up to the upcoming federal campaign.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, he will have to decide whether to become more actively involved in Quebec’s ongoing securalism debate. That time is almost upon his government.

On Thursday, a Quebec parliamentary commission held its final day of public hearings on Bill 21. By all indications, the law that would forbid public sector workers in so-called positions of authority from wearing religious symbols will be on the books before the National Assembly adjourns for the summer next month.

Under the legislation, it will become a condition of employment for future police officers, prison guards, judges, Crown prosecutors and public schoolteachers to abstain from wearing religious symbols in their workplaces.

On the day Premier François Legault introduced the bill, Trudeau came out swinging. The prime minister has consistently argued that it is wrong and unnecessary to curtail the freedoms of religious minorities in the name of ensuring the secular character of Quebec’s public institutions.

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Since then, a cone of silence has fallen on the federal capital.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his NDP counterpart Jagmeet Singh both say they disapprove Quebec’s state-enforced approach to securalism.

But inasmuch as they do not reflect the views of all their Quebec MPs, neither is eager to prod Trudeau into more forceful action.

According to sources in the Quebec government, the prime minister is reserving his definitive decision as to the federal way forward until Bill 21 has been passed into law.

One option could see Trudeau turn to some rarely used sections of the Constitution to block the legislation. He could also refer the bill to the Supreme Court for an opinion, or have the federal government intervene in support of the groups that are already lining up to fight it in court.

Although Legault has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to shelter Bill 21 from a Charter challenge, there remain a number of legal avenues open to its opponents.

Meanwhile, appeals for a forceful federal intervention — from both within and outside Quebec — have been as few and far between

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By comparison to the vocal debate that attended the Parti Québécois attempt to legislate on the same issue only six years ago, the discussion of Bill 21 has been, if not serene, at least less acrimonious than the previous instalment.

There are reasons for this difference.

The PQ charter covered every single public service worker — from child care workers to hospital orderlies.

Bill 21 only applies to a handful of groups, and mostly to future hires. It grandfathers the right of existing employees to wear religious symbols for as long as they continue to hold their current positions.

The 2013 charter was introduced by a minority Parti Québécois government looking for a springboard to a majority.

Between the time that charter was introduced and the election that ended in defeat for the PQ half a year later, the securalism issue remained at centre stage at the expense of all other provincial initiatives.

Legault, by comparison, is in the first months of a four-year term. He has time on his side.

Even as it has been steering Bill 21 through the National Assembly, the Coalition Avenir Québec government has not allowed it to come across as a raison d’être.

And then battle fatigue has set in. Quebecers have been discussing the place of religious symbols in the public space for more than a decade.

By now, everyone has had his or her say and most have chosen a side, with little middle ground between the two camps.

On that basis, the committee hearings on Bill 21 — even as they allowed for an airing of contrary views — featured few if any surprises.

Seven of the 36 organizations initially invited to testify declined to participate.

For different reasons, Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, the two leading Quebec public intellectuals whose commission report a decade ago set off the debate over the banning of religious symbols, both profoundly dislike Bill 21.

Taylor has come to feel no legislation is the better option. Bouchard argues that expanding the religious symbols ban to teachers goes much too far.

But by now, the genie will not be put back in the bottle, at least not by those who initially let it out.

If one had to single out one takeaway from the committee hearings, it is that the political ship of Bill 21 — at least in the eye of both its fans and its detractors — has already sailed.

If Trudeau has been keeping his finger on the Quebec pulse since the debate that has polarized his home province for a decade resumed, he will allow that ship’s next port of call to be a court of law and not the federal campaign trail.
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