In the matter of whether the federal government should actively intervene to thwart Quebec’s bid to curtail religious freedoms in parts of its public sector, the ruling Liberals, along with the main opposition parties, have twice been saved by the bell.
Two previous attempts foundered when their political authors lost power before the measures were either passed into law, in the case of the Parti Quebecois’s values charter, or applied, in the case of the Liberal veil ban.
But last weekend the clock ran out on the federal wait-and-see approach to the ongoing Quebec debate.
On Sunday, the Coalition Avenir Quebec government passed its own variation on the theme of affirming the province’s secular character into law.
As of this week, the province has become the only North American jurisdiction to impose a secular dress code on selected groups of public sector employees — including elementary and secondary school teachers.
When Premier Francois Legault presented Bill 21, the three main federal parties were unanimous in their disapproval.
But both the Conservatives and the New Democrats also made it pretty clear they believed the Quebec government was within its rights to legislate on the matter.
Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh’s non-interventionist approach makes a virtue out of necessity.
Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant, Alan Rayes — among other Conservative party MPs — has come out in support of the Quebec law. It is popular in the francophone areas of the province that are home to the party’s ridings.
It says something about Singh’s moral authority on his Quebec caucus that he is unwilling or unable to do more than frown at a provincial law that would force him — were he to seek employment as a lawyer in Quebec — to choose between his turban and a job as a crown prosecutor.
The Conservatives and the NDP are not about to put pressure on Justin Trudeau’s government to engage in a battle with Quebec over religious rights.
Indeed, days after the adoption of the controversial law, Canada’s two main opposition parties have yet to ask a single question as to the way forward — if any — for the federal government.
Many Liberal MPs also have mixed feelings about how proactive their government should be on this sensitive front. The Quebec law has the backing of a solid majority of the province’s voters. Trudeau is about to spend the summer courting them in hopes of a second Liberal term.
On the day after the law came into force, Attorney-General David Lametti said he was reviewing the Quebec law. He added the federal government was determined to “defend the charter.”
Under questioning from the Bloc Quebecois, the minister would not rule out a federal intervention. But at the same time, the Liberals — starting with Trudeau himself — have been careful to not beat the war drums.
If the federal government joins the NDP and the Conservatives on the sidelines, it will not be for lack of options. Trudeau could use the constitutional powers vested in the federal government to disallow the securalism law.
There is no logistical reason why Trudeau needs to come to a definitive decision as to whether to challenge the Quebec law before the October election.
But in fairness, voters in Quebec and elsewhere deserve a clear answer as to the prime minister’s intentions.
If Trudeau were re-elected — having dodged the issue in Quebec throughout the campaign — only to subsequently become proactive in seeking to have the securalism law overturned, he would poison the well of his second term in office.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.