Anyone familiar with the history of Quebec’s preferential status in Canada – with its exceptional ability to enact policies that would be taboo in other provinces – should not have been surprised by its adoption of Bill 21.
Granted, this piece of legislation is more unjust than previous political iniquities in la belle province. It bans Muslims, Sikhs and orthodox Jews who are civil servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
This is not merely the prohibition of a prescribed dress code or even a breach of religious freedom. As FP columnist Andrew Coyne has pointed out, “the wearing of the hijab, the turban and the kippa are key requirements of their faith, and as such core elements of their identity.
“We are talking about a law,” says Coyne, “that in effect bars employment [to certain religious minorities] in much of the public sector — not just those who are police officers and judges, but also government lawyers and teachers.”
Bill 21 informs these minorities in no uncertain terms that they are no longer welcome in Quebec. Although the rights of existing employees have been “grandfathered” while they remain in their present jobs, many have already packed up and left the province.
Even more shocking than the passage of this contemptible bill, and its approval by the majority of Quebec francophones, is the abject failure of our federal political party leaders to forcefully take action against it.
Justin Trudeau mumbles that “I won’t do anything about it now, but I don’t entirely rule out doing something about it later.”
Andrew Scheer refuses to get involved, but simply assures voters that his party “will always stand up for individual liberties.”
Jagmeet Singh, who would himself be a victim of the Quebec bill if he were a public employee there, calls it “legislated discrimination,” but also shrinks from actively campaigning against it.
Elizabeth May also denounced the bill as “an infringement on individual human rights,” but merely pledges to help find jobs in other provinces for any of its victims forced to flee Quebec.
None of these party leaders is even supporting the activist social groups that have filed legal challenges against Bill 21 in the Quebec courts. Why not? Obviously because Quebec Premier Francois Legault has publicly warned them not to do so.
The furor over Bill 21 caused a brief stir during the opening weeks of the current federal election. But the issue has since faded into the background and is not likely to affect the voting outcome for any of the contending parties. Not when they are all equally complicit in tolerating such an egregious violation of human rights.
Quebec and the patriated constitution
The Quebec government has clashed with the federal government many times in the past. The most acrimonious clash came when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980 decided to bring home the country’s constitution – the British North American Act — from the mother country, Great Britain. He intended to expand it with the addition of a charter of rights and freedoms that would protect citizens from arbitrary actions by their governments.
Not surprisingly, this proposal infuriated the then premier of Quebec, Rene Levesque, who realized that the new constitution would weaken the province’s legislative freedom while boosting Ottawa’s overall authority. More troubling for Levesque, it would also inhibit the province’s growing separatist movement.
The ensuing skirmish with Quebec, as well as with other provinces that also feared an erosion of their power, dragged on for nearly another two years. It culminated in a deal eventually signed by all the provinces except Quebec. When Queen Elizabeth came to Ottawa on April 17, 1982, to sign and proclaim the new Constitution Act, a bitter Levesque ordered the Quebec flag to be flown at half mast.
The Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords
Over a five-year span between 1987 and 1992, the federal Conservative government headed by Brian Mulroney made two concerted efforts to radically amend the new Constitution. The objective was to placate Quebec by granting it “distinct society” status.
This would have required a transfer of key federal powers from Ottawa to Quebec – and necessarily to the other provinces as well. They would be given exclusive jurisdiction over resources and culture, and the federal government would be stripped of its power to override any provincial legislation deemed injurious to the national interest.
The Meech Lake Accord – the first attempt to enact these drastic constitutional changes – was adopted in principle by Mulroney and all ten provincial premiers in 1987. It was also supported by the Liberal and New Democratic parties, and by many national organizations, even including the Canadian Labour Congress.
The deadline for implementing this radical alteration of the Constitution was set for June 23, 1990.
At first, it seemed certain of gaining the necessary unanimous support, but opposition to the accord started to build when its adverse effects on national unity began to leak out. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau campaigned forcefully against it, as did constitutional expert Senator Eugene Forsey.
The accord foundered after support for it was denied by Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells and Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper until the deadline for unanimous approval ran out. Wells and Harper thus share the credit for saving Canada from a constitutional catastrophe.
But Quebec and the other powerful pro-Meech forces stubbornly refused to concede defeat. Under Mulroney, they quickly forged another version of Meech – the Charlottetown Accord. It was almost identical, with the same proposed constitutional amendments that would devolve much of federal power to the provinces.
The only substantial change – thankfully – was that, instead of just requiring unanimous consent by political leaders, the new Accord would be put to a national referendum.
The federal and provincial leaders believed that the main reason they lost the Meech Lake battle was because of the secrecy of their negotiations and the autocratic process of requiring only the support of the political elites. They were confident they could win the propaganda fight that would precede the referendum scheduled for October 26, 1992.
Again, all of the three main political parties – Conservative, Liberal and NDP – backed the new Accord, as did the Canadian Labour Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, and other big business conglomerates.
Normally, these large political, business and labour elites would have prevailed. But they made a crucial miscalculation. They were so sure of their superiority in debate and persuasion that they agreed to give opponents of the deal equal free time and space in the media!
The effect was the same as if critics of the Charlottetown Accord had been given their own mass media. The people of Canada – for the first time – got to hear and read about both sides of a major issue in equal proportions.
The outcome of the referendum was that the political, business and labour establishments suffered a humiliating defeat. It wasn’t a complete rout, but the anti-Charlottetown Accord voters won a decisive victory: 54.3% to 45.7%.
It was the last serious effort to dismantle the Constitution so as to endow Quebec with a virtually independent “special status.”
Quebec, however, clearly still retains and exerts a disproportionate capacity to wield its political and economic power to intimidate the federal government and other provinces. The disturbing extent of that power is ominously displayed by the lack of strong opposition to Bill 21 outside Quebec.