Whitby: Durham Region may send up to $50,000 for the fight against Quebec’s Bill 21 after narrow vote

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Published January 4, 2022 at 2:22 pm

Oakville Councillors voted unanimously at a meeting on Monday night to express their opposition to the Quebec law that forbids public servants from wearing religious symbols. INSAUGA PHOTO

Durham Regional Council may send up to $50,000 in funding supports to the legal challenge of Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 which forbids public workers from wearing religious symbols at work.

The move, put forward by Whitby Regional Councillors Christopher Leahy and Steve Yamada, came hot on the heels of Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s announcement of a $100,000 support to National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a non-profit dedicated to fighting discrimination.

Brown called for other cities to lend their support to the initiative, receiving commitments from Toronto, London, Winnipeg, Calgary and the Ontario Big City Mayors caucus, whether in funding or other supports.

The Quebec legislature passed Bill 21 in 2019, and since then it has “come in the way of the careers of many Canadians wearing a kippah, a truban, or a hijab,” according to Rizwan Mohammad, an NCCM advocacy officer and life-long Durham resident, who led a delegation to Regional Council to support the motion.

Mohammad thanked Council for entertaining the motion to support the legal challenge in Quebec. “We appreciate the Region of Durham’s commitment to stand up for justice,” he said, adding the Region’s commitment “amid this battle for human rights is essential.”

“The Region of Durham can set an example to other municipalities…across the nation to be a part of this battle and be on the right side of history.” Mohammad said arguing for the Region to pass the motion.

“For those many residents who are watching what is happening in Quebec, it is shocking, even terrifying, to walk outside and know it is illegal in another part of the country for them … to have certain jobs that they are qualified for, simply because of their religion.”

Mohammad stressed there is “dangerous precedent” set by Bill 21’s use of the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Bill 21 sets the stage for the notwithstanding clause being used to attack the rights of Canadians anywhere.”

The notwithstanding clause allows the provinces to override the chartered rights of Canadians for five years. It’s use was once rare, being invoked only six times between 1982 and 2000.

After that, it went unused at all until 2018, but was cited six more times since. Doug Ford’s Ontario Government triggered it in two of those uses, receiving royal assent on their second use, which restricted third-parties, such as unions, from political advertising outside election periods.

Given the federal nature of this override, Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster said he found it “interesting” that “it’s become the responsibility of local and Regional governments to deal with something that should be a federal issue,” adding that the none of the leaders of any party are willing to take up the cause.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, said even though he was “deeply” opposed to the legislation he did not want to trigger a jurisdiction battle with Quebec.

When brought up in the federal election this year, most leaders agreed that Bill 21 was Quebec issue to be decided by Quebec in debate, with Trudeau later commenting his resistance to intervention was to “ensure that it is Quebeckers themselves” who decide.

This stance held even after Fatemeh Anvari, a Chelsea, Quebec teacher was removed from her classroom, sparking national outcry and Brown’s initiative. According to Mohammad, only the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, who himself wears a turban, has since changed his tune, leaving Foster “dismayed.”

“Dismayed is a polite word, I would use disgusted,” Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier followed up, “because I’m thoroughly disgusted that the federal government is more worried about votes in Quebec than doing the right thing.” He noted however, the Big City Mayor’s meeting committed only to letters of support, but not funding.

“I think the option of committing funds is an important step,” Mohammad replied, “I know this is a pandemic time and there are concerns about spending public funds where they’re most needed.”

However, he noted as an Ajax taxpayer himself, the proposed $50,000 supports would cost each Durham resident about seven cents. “I would not consider seven cents to be too much to contribute towards standing up for the rights and freedoms of all Canadians.”

Collier said the decision to simply voice the Big City Mayor’s concerns through letters was a result of heavy COVID-19 deficits, and questions around the appropriateness of shouldering the costs of federal and provincial issues.

Councillors Bob Chapman, Chris Leahy, Elizabeth Roy, and Steve Yamada also voiced their concerns with Bill 21 and their support for donating or other support to the legal challenge.

Despite his staunch critique of Bill 21, Mohammad said, “I love Quebec,” noting of the 1995 independence referendum, “I was horrified as a student in school about the prospect of Quebec separating. I have many friends and relatives in Quebec. I believe in the distinctiveness of the culture.”

Hours after Mohammad’s delegation, it came time for Council to vote on the motion. In an impassioned plea, Councillor Steve Yamada outlined the need to protect Canada’s multicultural mosaic.

“It seems like it’s none of our business,” he said, “but next month like clockwork, Durham Council will hold a moment of silence for the victims of Islamophobia” in a tribute the the six slain and five injured in the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.

Yamada related this discrimination to that seen by his fellow Japanese-Canadians, 21,000 of whom were confined to internment camps in the Second World War.

“My grandparents and great-grandmother were proud Canadians during World War II. The Canadian government threw them into a prison camp, took their property and their dignity,” he said.

“When you look at my grandmother and great-grandmother, they did not look like enemies of the state,” he continued, “but they’re non-Japanese neighbours and friends watched and did nothing. They were silent. I’m not going to sit by and watch that type of thing happen to another group of Canadians.”

Ultimately Council voted unanimously to support the motion in principle. However, the motion was a split for a separate vote regarding the $50,000 funding, which was carried by a single vote at 13-12.

Regional staff will now work out the specifics of how much funding will be sent, if any.

Full Vote:

Yes: Ashe, Foster, Grant, Highet, Leahy, Marimpietri, John Neal, Nicholson, Pickles, Ryan, Smith, Wotten, Yamada

No: Anderson, Barton, Carter, Chapman, Collier, Crawford, Dies, Drew, Henry, Kerr, Mitchell, Joe Neal

Absent: Lee, McLean, Mulcahey, Roy

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