In the context of the City of Winnipeg’s $1.19-billion operating budget, it’s a relative pittance to contribute $100,000 to a legal challenge of Quebec’s Bill 21. But the modest sum has large ramifications.
It’s highly unusual for this municipal government to get involved in the business of a provincial government so far removed from Winnipeg’s direct interests. If the donation is approved by Winnipeg’s executive policy committee after its scheduled debate this month, expect blunt advice from some Quebecers that perhaps cities in other provinces should stay in their lane.
The Winnipeg proposal is also noteworthy because it’s going where the federal government fears to tread. The infamous Quebec law — which bars public employees in positions of authority, including teachers, from wearing visible religious symbols such as turbans, kippahs and hijabs while working — has been on the books since June of 2019, and has not been legally challenged by the Justin Trudeau federal government, which historically depends on strong voter support in Quebec.
When the bill became law, the only provincial leader to oppose it publicly was Manitoba’s then-premier Brian Pallister, who called it "dangerous legislation." Say what you will about Mr. Pallister, and many Manitobans decline to say anything laudatory about this controversial former premier, but his assessment of Bill 21 was well considered.
With Mr. Pallister now retired, Winnipeg’s new objection to the Quebec legislation came from Mayor Brian Bowman on Dec. 16. "Bill 21 is something that we haven’t seen for some time in Canada," he said while initiating the motion that the city donate $100,000 to the legal fight. "It is so objectionable. It is contrary to everything that we hold dear as Canadians."
It is so objectionable. It is contrary to everything that we hold dear as Canadians.” – Mayor Brian Bowman
Winnipeg is not the only Canadian city donating to the challenge. As part of a co-ordinated push, Toronto and Brampton, Ont., have each agreed to contribute $100,000, and Calgary, Alta., is discussing a possible contribution.
The cities’ uncommon attempt to right a wrong beyond their municipal boundaries comes after fresh controversy related to Bill 21 erupted in December when Fatemeh Anvari, a popular third-grade teacher in Chelsea, Quebec, was removed from her classroom and reassigned to another role because she wears a hijab. The motto of her school, Chelsea Elementary, is "Respect for all, by all."
Ms. Anvari became the face of opposition to the provincial law, with protests across Quebec and criticism from across the country.
Federal politicians, aware Bill 21 has 64 per cent support among Quebecers, restricted their reactions to nothing more than words. Marc Miller, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, called the law "cowardly."
Mr. Trudeau, always quick to position himself as a proponent of diversity, said he personally is "deeply" opposed to the law, but for jurisdictional reasons his government won’t support the legal challenge.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole also said he personally opposes the law, and also won’t commit to intervening against it.
The words–but–no–action stance of federal politicians is of little practical value to the groups challenging the law (Bill 21).
Unfortunately, the words-but-no-action stance of federal politicians is of little practical value to the groups challenging the law: the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization of Canada and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. They need help to pay the legal bills necessary to match the substantial financial resources of the the Quebec government.
It’s into this void of volition that Canadian cities are stepping up to help fund the challenge of what has been accurately described as "legislated intolerance."
Winnipeg’s EPC should approve the $100,000 donation, even though it transcends city council’s normal jurisdiction. When injustice is so brazen, Winnipeg should refuse to look the other way and mind its own business.