NDP repudiates Quebec’s Bill 21 but falters in its explanation

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh delivers a stump speech in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Photo from Instagram.

The NDP is fighting for its life in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois, supported by the right-wing government of François Legault, threatens many if not all of the party’s current 14 seats which were already reduced from the high watermark of 59 federal seats that the NDP won in Quebec in 2011.

The BQ has campaigned in support of Quebec’s Bill 21 which prohibits provincial employees, including public school teachers, from wearing religious symbols. Prime targets are Muslim women wearing headscarfs (hijabs), many of them newcomers from Africa and Asia – prompting critics to label the bill as racist and sexist. It was one of the first laws enacted by the Coalition Avenir Québec government, elected just a year ago. The BQ equates its “support of Quebec interests” as support for the CAQ government and its laws and projects.

The NDP’s response to Bill 21 has been confused and contradictory. Jagmeet Singh has correctly repudiated it (as have the other major party leaders). But he seems unable to explain why, as he says, it would be “inappropriate” for an NDP government to support a court challenge to it, saying only that he wants to “win people’s hearts.”

The party even trivializes the law with a French-language ad showing Singh with his long hair let down, followed by a glimpse of him winding a turban around his head. “Like, you, I’m proud of my identity,” he says in a voice over. “[H]e can show his head without a turban,” says the party’s deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice, “and it’s not a big deal.” But surely it is “a big deal” if Singh’s turban would bar him from employment in a public sector job.

Bill 21 restricts public expression of religious beliefs in the name of state “secularism,” or laïcité as it is usually termed in French. However, as the NDP’s Quebec counterpart Québec solidaire argues in its program, “It is the state that is secular, not individuals.” QS voted against Bill 21 in the National Assembly. A secular Quebec, says QS, would promote the separation of church and state, for example, by ending the government’s funding of religious schools – while protecting individuals’ right to express their religious belief (or lack of such belief) as long as this does no harm to others. The NDP should adopt this conceptual distinction and be prepared to defend it.

Similarly, Singh’s reluctance to support a federal government court challenge to Bill 21 can be easily defended. The NDP supports Quebec’s right to self-determination in its Sherbrooke Declaration, the party’s major statement of policy on the Quebec national question. In addition, the NDP’s Quebec platform in this election, Ensemble pour le Québec, acknowledges for the first time that “the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 without Quebec’s signature is an historic error.” A federal challenge to a Quebec law would necessarily be based on the 1982 Canadian constitution and accordingly lack legitimacy in Quebec, whatever its prospects of legal success – in the process fueling the reactionary BQ campaign in defense of the CAQ government.

Richard Fidler is a member of Solidarity Ottawa and a member of Québec solidaire. He blogs at Life on the Left.

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