Quebec’s dress code creates divisions

For all the talk about a large consensus in Quebec being behind Premier Francois Legault’s bid to ban the wearing of religious symbols for some public employees, Montreal’s political class is not buying his government’s controversial Bill 21.

That will not stop the Coalition Avenir Quebec government from passing restrictive measures that would impose a secular dress code on all future teachers, police officers and other public service workers in so-called positions of authority.

But it does undermine the premier’s rationale that he is addressing a situation that justifies overriding both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights to achieve what he describes as a pressing collective goal for the province.

Given its diversity, Montreal is where Bill 21 will have the most impact. The province’s metropolis is also at the heart of an expanding opposition movement to the proposed provincial policy.

That movement already includes school boards that would, under the bill, have to turn down applicants for teaching positions who would not abide by a secular dress code.

The English Montreal School Board has warned it will not implement the law, paving the way for a frontal confrontation with the province.

The union that represents public school teachers is also opposed to the measures, as is Montreal’s municipal council, with Mayor Valerie Plante leading the charge.

Plante has called on the Quebec government to offer Montreal a regime that reflects its diversity. That call earned her threats and invectives on social media, in some cases, laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On the weekend, Quebec Solidaire — the province’s left-wing party — reversed its support for a limited ban on the wearing of religious symbols by workers in a position of authority to join the provincial Liberals in opposition to the imposition of restrictions.

The shift leaves only two of Montreal’s 27 members of the National Assemby — the duo elected under the Coalition Avenir Quebec banner last fall — in favour of the bill.

At this juncture, there is little light shining between Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP on Bill 21.

Trudeau was more forceful in his denunciation of the bill than his opposition rivals, in part because he has less cause to fear internal dissent on the issue.

Both Scheer and Singh — even as they denounce Legault’s policy — have to guard against one or more dissidents from their Quebec caucuses breaking ranks.

For all the forcefulness of Trudeau’s reaction, there has so far been no indication that he is considering turning to some of the constitutional powers vested in the federal government to overturn the Quebec law.

There is a debate as to whether the federal government could overturn the law using its power of disallowance, which has not been invoked since 1943.

But beyond constitutional complexities, a move by Trudeau to overrule the will of the National Assembly would shift the debate from the full exercise of religious freedoms to Quebec’s jealously guarded provincial autonomy.

In any event, the decision as to whether to intervene is one Trudeau may not have to take.

Any federal move to block the implementation of Bill 21 would have to come after its passage into law, which will not happen until late June at the earliest.

By then, Parliament will have adjourned, and will not sit again — absent some unforeseen emergency — until after the federal election.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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