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Andrea Horwath: Bill 21 requires a call to action

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On Tuesday, the Ontario legislature voted unanimously to support an NDP motion calling on the Ontario government to take action against Bill 21, Quebec’s ban on religious symbols. It was a proud moment for Ontario, united in standing up for religious freedoms and celebrating the diversity of faith.

The motion I tabled was a clear call to action, to condemn unequivocally Quebec’s attempt to pass a law that violates religious freedom rights in Canada. The motion requires Ontario Premier Doug Ford to formally call on Quebec Premier François Legault to repeal the law. The motion also commits Ontario to intervene on behalf of Ontarians to challenge the legislation in the likely event that Bill 21 goes to the Supreme Court of Canada.

As Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) have made clear, Bill 21 is discriminatory. For a government to ban its public employees — people like schoolteachers, police officers and judges — from wearing articles of faith at work is a dangerous attack on personal religious freedoms. It means those that wear the kippah, the hijab, the cross or a turban have had their careers and their dreams for their future taken from them.

Incidences of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Canada are on the rise. In Ontario, Jewish, Muslim and other minority communities are the targets of hate crimes and vile racism. The religious freedoms faith communities currently enjoy in this country have been hard-won, and we as Ontarians and Canadians must never take them for granted.

When it comes to the freedom to practise and express one’s religion, we can’t afford to go backwards. As the Canadian Jewish community understands all too well, a government’s encroachment on citizens’ religious expression can have grave and terrifying consequences. Bill 21 challenges the values of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is an affront to Canadian values, which uphold an individual’s ability to be who they are without discrimination or different treatment. It is unthinkable that a government of any level should attempt to dictate when or where the expression of religion is permitted.

The Ontario New Democrats welcomed the unanimous support our motion got from the government and independent members of the legislature. It was my honour to stand with representatives of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Toronto Council of Rabbis and the World Sikh Organization to announce the actions we agree are necessary.

But words aren’t enough. The motion relies on Doug Ford doing what all members of the legislature have directed him to do: take action. Stand up for people’s freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Make it clear that allowing this law in one province is allowing a precedent that could hurt the people of all provinces.

Unfortunately, Ford has been noticeably quiet about Bill 21, sidestepping opportunities to condemn it. In July 2019, after Bill 21 had already been introduced, Ford released a joint statement with Premier Legault that affirmed a strong relationship between the two provinces. The statement made no mention of Bill 21. Ford has also declined to commit to joining the legal challenge of this legislation, if and when it reaches the Supreme Court.

Later this week, Mr. Ford is scheduled to meet again with Mr. Legault. Will he raise the issue of Bill 21 then?

It is time for the premier to execute the mandate he has been given, and both formally and officially stand up against Bill 21. The government cannot say one thing and do another. It can’t pay lip service to Ontario’s Jewish community, and other faith communities, then betray them.

Leadership is about action. It’s about standing up for people. And it’s about protecting people’s Charter Rights and Freedoms with all our strength. And that’s why Doug Ford needs to keep Ontario’s word on Bill 21.

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Andrea Horwath, is the leader of the Official Opposition in Ontario and leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party.