For decades, Alberta’s conservative politicians have complained about the preferential treatment Quebec receives from the federal government and its elected officials. It’s so much a part of the province’s shared identity that a fleur-de-lis with a strike through it should be added to Alberta’s official coat of arms.
But for the most part, whether it was the equalization program or their attitude towards oil and gas infrastructure, it was much ado about nothing. Now, with Quebec’s Bill 21, they may finally have a point.
The controversial legislation, which bans the wearing of religious symbols on the job by public servants, has been blasted from every conceivable political direction. Progressive mayors like Calgary’s Jyoti Gondek oppose it. Conservative leaders like Brampton mayor and former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown want to fund challenges against it. Even Ken Boessenkool and Jamie Carroll, old political foes from the Harper/Dion era, shared a byline on a piece that called out Bill 21 as an example of state-sanctioned bigotry and discrimination.
Everyone, it seems, is united in their opposition to the bill — except the federal politicians who might have to face the wrath of nationalist Quebec voters down the road. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been conspicuously cautious in how he presents his criticism, arguing that while he’s personally opposed to the bill, he’s not ready for his government to intervene against it just yet.
He tried to thread this needle in a year-end interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton, suggesting "the challenge we have on this one is making sure that people understand that fundamental rights need to be defended. Governments can and should defend them and have a role in it, but our fellow citizens can also be standing up for each other."
This is, of course, abject nonsense.
When it comes to a provincial government depriving some of its citizens of their rights, and using the notwithstanding clause to do it, individuals aren’t the ones who should be asked to respond. That role falls squarely to the federal government, and it’s one that Trudeau clearly doesn’t want to take given the potential political (and electoral) fallout in Quebec. The risk he’s trying to navigate is very real, too: according to a September poll, nearly two-thirds of Quebecers support Bill 21.
He’s hardly alone there. Erin O’Toole warned his own caucus not to speak out against it, suggesting “this is an issue that is best left for Quebecers to decide.” Even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who only has one seat left in Quebec (and would be barred from teaching or serving in other public capacities under the law), has until very recently refused to say that Ottawa should intervene on behalf of those impacted by the bill.
All three leaders are terrified of what will happen if they say aloud what so many know in their hearts: that Bill 21 is unquestionably and irredeemably racist.
The double standard at work here is pretty obvious, too. After all, if Jason Kenney’s government passed legislation that banned public officials from wearing hijabs or turbans on the job, and used the notwithstanding clause to protect it from a charter challenge, the response from Ottawa would be instantaneous. There would be no weighing of political risks or soft-pedalling of the truth. Trudeau and Singh would broadcast their opposition to the bill as loudly as possible, while a sensible conservative leader who didn’t want to forfeit all of their remaining votes in the Greater Toronto Area would have to say something mildly critical.
Opinion: Everyone, it seems, is united in their opposition to Quebec's Bill 21 — except the federal politicians who might have to face the wrath of nationalist Quebec voters down the road, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #CDNpoli
Therein lies the difference between those two provinces.
If you’re a federal politician, you’re free to tap dance on Alberta, but you’d best tiptoe around Quebec if you want to actually win an election. That doesn’t make any of Alberta’s other whining about Quebec right or fair, and it doesn’t change the basic political calculus in this country. Such is the risk of crying wolf for a living.
But the sooner our federal politicians find the courage to speak truth to Quebec’s political power, the better off we’ll all be.
Yes, it’s entirely possible the Bloc Québécois could use federal opposition as a wedge issue and expand its vote and seat totals in the province. But it’s just as possible that rushing to the defence of a racist law could backfire on the BQ, and give the other federal parties an opening they didn’t have before.
Either way, we won’t know until they and their leaders try. If they don’t, we’ll know something else: that having political power is more important to them than what they do with it.