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Jedwab: Sitting on the sidelines while rights are trampled

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Quebec Premier François Legault

Canadian Jewish community leaders need to step up and support the legal challenges to Quebec’s Bill 21. The most recent organization to issue such a challenge is the English Montreal School Board, which is seeking an exemption from the bill on the basis of representing a linguistic minority. By doing so, it is protecting the rights of educators from the province’s religious minorities that may be affected by the law. It’s an initiative to which Jewish community leaders in Quebec and the rest of Canada should rally.

Leaders of the organized Jewish community in Quebec have spoken out by sharing their profound disappointment with the law. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has called for a thorough review of the law at the expiry of the notwithstanding clause (which is some five years away). Unfortunately, that’s not enough and it is imperative that Quebec and other Canadian Jewish community leaders publicly back the recourse to the courts. Undoubtedly, this position will be unpopular with the government of Quebec and the many provincial supporters of Bill 21. Quebec Premier François Legault has insisted that the legislation is the exclusive jurisdiction of the province. At the start of the election campaign, he asked federal party leaders to never intervene on Bill 21 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gently evoked the possibility of doing so in the future.

Surely it will be the Quebec Jewish community that will have to deal with the reaction of Quebec politicians and media. When Montreal’s largest French-language school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montréal, asked for a delay of one year to examine how to go about implementing the law, the government threatened to put it into trusteeship. For her part, Quebec columnist Lise Ravary urged opponents of Bill 21 to exercise great caution, as a veto of the legislation could lead to the break up of Canada.

To muzzle legitimate debate and prevent recourse to the courts, it’s unfortunate that supporters of Bill 21 choose to conduct themselves in this manner. But the Quebec Jewish community should not be distracted by such tactics, as there is an important principle at stake. It is critical for Quebecers and other Canadians, whether or not they identify with a religious minority, confirm the concerns expressed by religious minorities that Bill 21 is indeed a violation of the Quebec and Canadian charters.

Some leaders of the Quebec Jewish community may endorse the premier’s view that the question needs to be settled by Quebecers, without outside interference. Notwithstanding such sentiment, many Quebecers acknowledge that the federal government has a right to intervene on the matter. A national survey conducted by Leger Marketing reveals that Quebecers are evenly divided in response to the following statement: “when you think about the debate on a secular Quebec government, do you think this issue is the exclusive responsibility of the Government of Quebec … and thus believe the Government of Canada could intervene on this matter?” Outside the province, some 55 per cent of Canadians surveyed do not think the issue is Quebec’s exclusive responsibility.

The same survey confirms that Canadians were divided over whether the courts should be asked to strike down Bill 21 (34 per cent favoured the idea, 25 per cent felt the federal government should make a commitment not to intervene and 35 per cent said they didn’t know). While a majority of Quebecers are very much opposed to that idea, some 58 per cent of the province’s non-francophones want the courts to strike it down.

For the time being, it’s important to establish the widely held view that the legislation does infringe on the freedom of religion provisions enshrined in the charter. Any deliberations on the matter by the courts could be precedent-setting for the rights of religious minorities not only in Quebec, but across Canada. By consequence, watching developments around the issue from the sidelines should not be an option for the Quebec and broader Canadian Jewish community.

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Jack Jedwab is president of the Association for Canadian Studies.