Ontario MPPs take a shot at Quebec with unanimous vote supporting religious freedom

Ontario MPPs take a shot at Quebec with unanimous vote supporting religious freedom
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Ontario MPPs have taken a shot at Quebec over its controversial Bill 21 , which has banned public sector workers in “positions of authority” from wearing religious symbols on the job since June.

All parties supported a motion Thursday from Liberal MPP Michael Coteau, a contender for his party’s leadership, saying Ontario supports diversity and free expression.

“Bill 21 does not reflect Canadian values, it doesn’t reflect the spirit of diversity and multiculturalism,” Coteau said before the vote.

“In Ontario we need to take a strong stand to support religious freedom and expression and continue to look for ways to support religious minorities in Ontario so they feel they are part of this province’s way forward.”

Bill 21 impacts public servants including police, teachers, judges and prosecutors, raising concerns it violates the Charter rights of observant Muslims, Sikhs and orthodox Jews. There are fears is could fuel racism and discrimination.

Quebec Premier François Legault has invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a bid to insulate the law — aimed at mitigating fears of francophone Quebecers that their culture is being eroded by minorities — from court challenges. It is already facing one, however.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said her party voted in favour despite concerns the motion “doesn’t go far enough” because it does not specifically mention Bill 21, Quebec or ask the provincial government to rescind it.

How secularism became Quebec’s religion: The distinct path to Bill 21

“As a legislature, we need to ask the premier of Quebec to withdraw Bill 21. It is a dangerous piece of legislation,” she told reporters.

“It’s an issue that’s a slippery slope, frankly. If any jurisdiction can simply say that people religious rights and freedoms can be taken away that’s a problem for all of us. We need to be strong as a province and ask the province of Quebec to change course and to take that legislation off the table.”

Horwath said her party will propose a stronger motion later this month but it’s not clear whether Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives would support it, given that Ford frequently refers to Legault as a friend.

Ford’s office quietly gave Legault’s officials a heads up about the vote Thursday, noting Coteau’s motion was worded in a somewhat benign fashion. Ford himself was not in the legislative chamber for the vote.

“We’ve already said in the province of Ontario a law like that has no place so we will be supporting that motion,” Government House Leader Paul Calandra said in advance of the vote, sidestepping questions on its impact on Ontario-Quebec relations.

“We’re sending a message to the people of Ontario that a law like that has no place in the province of Ontario and that in the province of Ontario we will always stand up for religious and ethnic minorities. That’s the message that we’re sending,” Calandra added.

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Green Leader Mike Schreiner said it’s important for Ontario legislators to signal “on the record that we believe in religious tolerance in Ontario and we don’t believe in discrimination.”

“My hope is the Quebec government backs off on it. We can huff and puff all we want. The challenge is are they going to listen. But at least we can let people in Ontario know definitively where we stand.”

The full 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.”
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