Whitby Regional councillors move for Regional Council to support Brampton’s legal fund against Quebec Bill 21

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Published December 16, 2021 at 3:23 pm

Whitby councillors Chris Leahy and Steve Yamada (pictured with follow councillor Deirdre Newman, centre) move for Durham Region to support legal challenges to Bill 21.

Whitby Regional Councillors Christopher Leahy and Steve Yamada have put forward a motion for next week’s Durham Council meeting to provide up to $50,000 to assist Brampton legal fund to fight Quebec’s religious symbols ban for public workers.

The Government of Quebec, led by Premier Francois Legault, passed An Act respecting the laicity of the State, otherwise known as Bill 21, in June 2019.

The act defines Quebec as a religiously neutral, “lay state.” As a result, it prohibits public sector employees from wearing religious symbols, such as crosses, hijabs, turbans and kippahs while on duty.

Evidently expecting the legislation to be challenged in court on constitutional grounds, the Quebec government invoked Charter Section 33, the notwithstanding clause, which allows provincial governments to temporarily override the chartered rights of their citizens.

Use of the notwithstanding clause was once quite rare. It was invoked six times between its inception in 1982 and 2000, but was only enacted three times. It wouldn’t be cited again until 2018, seeing six uses by 2021.

Section 33’s use in Bill 21, and the bill more broadly, were immediately controversial across the country with numerous religious political leaders decrying the Act as discriminatory.

It’s been challenged in court several times, but always upheld with modifications. It was often a point of heated discussion during the 2021 election, but most party leaders agreed at the time it was a Quebec issue to be handled by Quebec.

However, the recent removal of Fatemeh Anvari, a teacher, from her classroom because she wore a hijab at work, has thrown fuel back into the fire of discussion.

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would not challenge the bill in court despite his objections to it, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown stepped up to fight instead.

Brampton council ultimately passed a motion to provide $100,000 to advocacy groups in Quebec to fund their legal challenges. Brown said, “If we allow religious freedom to be infringed upon in Quebec, where you cannot wear a hijab and be a teacher or wear a turban and be a police officer, we set a dangerous precedent.”

“It’s not a fair fight when you have racialized communities struggling to defend the Charter against a provincial government with unlimited legal resources,” he continued. He’s since called for other municipalities to lend their support to the initiative with funding of their own.

Durham Regional Councillors Leahy and Yamada heard the call. They gave notice to council of a motion which would provide up to $50,000 to the fund.

Their motion reads in part, “Durham Region, as one of Canada’s fastest growing and most multicultural and diverse regional municipalities, stands firmly to support religious freedom as this is aligned with our Freedom of Rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights.”

“Durham Region stands in solidarity with National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) in their legal challenge against Bill 21 in Quebec,” it continues.

The full text of the motion can be found in the Durham agenda. It will be debated by Regional Council on December 22.

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