Leaders refuse to rebuke Quebec

The great furor over the poppy ban at Whole Foods lasted less than one news cycle last week, thanks to the full-throated outrage from political leaders all over Canada.

Imagine how long Quebec’s secularism bill — which bans a lot more than poppy wearing — would have lasted with similar shock and condemnation from those same politicians.

Sanctimony is never in short supply in the realm of politics, but we seem to have entered the season for freedom-of-expression lectures in Canada.

Politicians have waded into the frays over saying the N-word in the classroom, wearing poppies in upscale supermarkets and the publication of religiously offensive cartoons in France.

There’s no end of courage — almost no end — when it comes to standing up for the right to make a statement.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves Francois Blanchet has been the most strident, but by no means has he been the only one.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has put out videos proclaiming himself as a free-speech champion in the face of what he sees as worrying ambivalence by Justin Trudeau after acts of terrorism in France.

Funny, though, not one of them rushed to the podium over the stories being told in a Quebec court last week about the lives ruined by Bill 21’s limits on the rights of religious expression.

Several constitutional challenges have been launched against that legislation, which bans the wearing of religious symbols in public, and one is now underway.

Even though it’s freedom-of-expression season in federal politics, not one party leader — not Blanchet, not O’Toole, not Trudeau or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — has offered comment on the tales being told in the Bill 21 trial.

There have been stories of teachers having to choose between their careers and their religion, and Muslims being targets of hate and bigotry because of the law.

And from the selective free-speech champions in Ottawa? Silence.

Trudeau and Singh have said they don’t like Bill 21, but they’re going to let the courts do what they do. O’Toole has said the law is “difficult,” but he’s not touching it because he doesn’t think it’s any of the federal government’s business — unlike poppies in supermarkets or acts of violence in Europe.

Blanchet has said he supports Bill 21 because it has majority support in Quebec, even though allowing minority rights to be settled by majority opinion has always been a sketchy kind of argument when it comes to constitutional matters.

Where do we get that idea? Oh yes, from Quebec.

To its credit, Whole Foods didn’t try that one with its poppy ban, though it’s kind of fun to imagine how over-the-top the political outrage would have been if the Amazon-owned outlet had said, “Most people who work for us don’t want to wear poppies.”

Let’s face it, though, it was pretty easy to be mad at Whole Foods. No one in politics wants to be associated with billion-dollar companies, tech giants or overpriced food these days, so it was simply a matter of hearing about the poppy ban and pressing “play” on the outrage tape.

It’s a little harder, apparently, to work up the nerve to say that Bill 21 is a flagrant slap in the face of freedom of expression and, worse yet, that it is inflicting real, not symbolic, damage on real citizens.

It’s politics, naturally. No one wants to get on the wrong side of that majority opinion in Quebec, or worse, get accused of trying to interfere with provinces’ rights to make their own laws.

We may be enthusiastic rights champions in Canada, but we are also very polite about poking our noses into constitutional-jurisdiction matters. See O’Toole’s arguments, above.

As for why politicians are suddenly falling over each other over freedom of expression these days, there may be an easy explanation: It’s the pandemic, and especially this second wave of COVID-19, which is proving to be a real freedom wrecker.

People are angry, frustrated and fatigued with limits on their lives. The addition of one more constraint, even if it extends to their speech alone, gives the public and politicians a way to vent a little emotion about how unfree we’re all feeling behind our masks and closed doors.

But the sanctimony of the free-speech champions at the podium in Ottawa is a little hard to take while Bill 21 is sitting on the books as a stain on charter rights in Canada.

These staunch champions of rights are of course free to proclaim they believe in freedom of expression day after day at their political pulpits. But we should feel free to take note of what freedoms — and whose freedoms — they are also failing to defend.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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