OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole ’s tacit support for Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21 caught the National Council of Canadian Muslims by surprise this week, leading it and the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) to denounce the move, saying they are deeply disappointed by the Tory leader’s “lack of courage.”
“It is an absolutely horrific situation that we never thought would happen in Canada, and the fact that none of our federal leaders are really showing the courage to stand up for freedom of religion and to stand up for minority communities, it is very disappointing,” WSO spokesman Balpreet Singh told HuffPost Canada Tuesday.
O’Toole’s comments on Bill 21 came after a meeting with Quebec Premier François Legault in Montreal on Monday. The newly elected leader of the Conservative party said he sought the meeting to “fully understand” the policy debates in the province, including those regarding questions about Quebec identity.
“That is a priority for me, personally,” he told reporters, in French, after the meeting. “We talked about Bill 101 [the French-language law] and Bill 21 [a bill that forbids new employees in certain public-sector jobs, such as teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols].
“And I will respect provincial jurisdictions of all provinces, including on laws to protect secularism and the French language. That will be a priority for me, as leader of the opposition,” O’Toole said.
The Tory leader took a much more nuanced stance on whether his party would support a single income tax form for Quebec residents, saying that while he and Legault spoke about it, he would not commit to the proposal.
“I said I will speak to my caucus on that,” he said, declining to state his personal position on the tax form. “I am — I am going to take an approach — because we must protect jobs. I’m going to talk to my colleagues, I’m going to talk to the unions, with the people in Shawinigan [where an important federal tax centre is located], and I will take a decision after the discussions,” he said.
O’Toole confirmed to journalists he would not intervene in court cases challenging the law.
“No, we have a national unity crisis at the moment, particularly in Western Canada … and we need a government in Ottawa that respects provincial autonomy, and respects provincial legislatures and the national assembly, I will have an approach like that,” O’Toole said. “Personally, I served in the military with Sikhs and other people, so I understand why it is a difficult question, but as a leader you have to respect our Constitution and the partnerships we need to have in Canada. Focus on what we can do together.”
In his Conservative leadership platform, O’Toole pledged to defend religious rights. He said he would bring back the Office of Religious Freedom, a bureau established by Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper within the foreign affairs department. It sought to protect and promote religious rights abroad but was shut down by the Trudeau government. O’Toole called it an “important contribution to global freedom.”
Singh said he believes it shows the Conservative leader’s hypocrisy of standing up for religious rights abroad while ignoring their being trampled at home.
Watch: Jagmeet Singh takes on Quebec’s secularism law by taking off his turban. Story continues below.
“This is all about votes,” Singh said about the bill, which is now law and enjoys widespread support in the province. “The [federal politicians] are all saying that on an individual personal level they oppose this. Erin O’Toole said he would never do this federally. That is really a cold comfort. I mean if individually we are opposed to it, then collectively should we not do something to make sure that the discrimination ends?”
Singh added that he thought it “even more disturbing” that O’Toole seemed to misunderstand what secularism means.
“If someone thinks that Bill 21 is about secularism, I think they have actually misunderstood what secularism actually means .... Canada doesn’t favour any religious group or any individual based on their faith. This is about excluding people because of their faith. That is not what secularism is all about.”
Both the World Sikh Organization of Canada and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) reached out to O’Toole’s office after his comments to the media. Monday evening, his office sent the groups a statement saying that “Mr. O’Toole has been consistent and clear that he personally disagrees with Bill 21” and that as prime minister, O’Toole would “never introduce a bill like this at the federal level.”
Still, Mustafa Farooq, the CEO of the NCCM, said he was caught by “surprise” by O’Toole’s comments, believing that the new Tory leader was trying to extend an olive branch and a welcome mat to religious communities that haven’t always voted Conservative.
If you’re also not fighting Bill 21, there is a fundamental issue. Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims
Farooq noted that, in his acceptance speech after winning the Tory leadership, O’Toole told Canadians: “I want you to know from the start that I am here to fight for you and your family.”
He then went on to say:
“I believe that whether you are Black, white, brown, or from any race or creed; whether you are LGBT or straight; whether you are an indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago; whether you are doing well, or barely getting by; whether you worship on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays or not at all, you are an important part of Canada, and you have a home in the Conservative party of Canada.”
O’Toole said the Conservative party would always stand for “doing what is right, even when it is not what is easy. That is what Canadians stand for.”
Farooq said O’Toole and the other federal leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, need to stand up for those who are being marginalized.
“You cannot fight for religious freedom or say the words religious freedom and also not come out very strongly in opposition to Bill 21, and that goes for every party leader,” he said.
“He needs to do something to fight it. I want to be unequivocal about that. He and all political leaders in Canada need to clearly state not only that they condemn it and they don’t like it but what they are going to do to fight it.
The federal Liberals have criticized the bill
“It’s not OK when you have one of our provinces in Canada where you have a Jewish man who isn’t allowed to wear a kippah and become a prosecutor, or a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is not allowed to become a police officer,” he added. “Even as we are having these discussions about systemic racism in policing, it’s not possible to have those kinds of conversations, to say that Canadians deserve better and we need change, and not to take an active role in clearly denouncing and consistently condemning Bill 21 for as long as it remains on the books,” Farooq added.
“For anyone that talks about systemic racism or talks about police reform, or anyone that’s talking about protecting constitutional rights… and if you’re also not fighting Bill 21, there is a fundamental issue.”
Farooq and Singh noted that the federal Liberals are “marginally better” on the issue, since the prime minister has opened the door to intervening in the Charter challenges at a later stage, while the Conservative and the NDP leaders are firmly opposed to fighting the bill.
“We feel this is an existential threat to human rights in Canada. The fact that the Canadian government is not intervening in this is disappointing to us … the Liberals have not ruled it out but the Conservatives and the NDP have been clear that they will not interfere,” the WSO spokesman said.
The Charter challenge is scheduled to be heard on Nov. 2 in Quebec Superior Court. The hearing is expected to last four weeks. Most observers expect the case will make its way through to the province’s Court of Appeal and, eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost Canada and has been updated.