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Organizations representing Sikhs and Muslims in Canada say they want Conservative leadership hopefuls to take a strong stand against Quebec's controversial secularism law.

Balpreet Singh, a spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said when he met with Erin O'Toole when he was party leader they discussed the law, commonly known as Bill 21.

“I think on a personal level Erin O’Toole was understanding and he said that he personally opposed Bill 21, but when it came to taking a stand on a party level, it wasn’t enough," he said in an interview.

“I thought that some progress was made when we met with him in the fall. He said that the party would be looking at it more closely but there was no followup to that.”

The law, passed in June 2019, prohibits public servants working in Quebec in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job and applies to judges, police officers and teachers.

New debate was stirred last December when an elementary school teacher in western Quebec who wore a hijab was removed from her teaching position.

O'Toole's reaction to the incident landed poorly with some of his MPs, who felt it wasn't enough for him to say that while he personally opposes the law, it's a matter best left up to Quebec to decide. Caucus also discussed the issue, which ultimately became one of the final points of tension around O'Toole's leadership before a majority of his MPs ultimately forced him out.

Singh said he knows there are Conservative MPs who believe it's time for the party to take a tougher stand.

“We’re going to be looking to see what the candidates have to say and I think the Sikh community will support those candidates that stand for human rights and say that this is unacceptable and they will oppose Bill 21."

Some Tories want tougher stand on Bill 21. Will that happen during leadership race? #CDNPoli #Quebec #Bill21 #SecularismLaw #Polqc #CPC

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, along with the Sikh organization, are among the parties that have challenged the law in court, calling it discriminatory.

Council CEO Mustafa Farooq said they will be reaching out to leadership candidates and called O'Toole's campaign pledge in last year's federal election not to do anything about the law "shameful."

"We want to see every Conservative leadership candidate stress clearly that they believe in freedom … and that includes freedom for Quebecers and freedom for Quebec Muslims, Jews and Sikhs. It's just that simple."

In terms of the Conservative leadership race, it's still early days as candidates have until April 19 to declare.

High-profile MP Pierre Poilievre is running and was to travel to Toronto this week to meet with cultural communities — part of the population where the party must grow its support if it hopes to form government.

Fellow Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis is also running, as is Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber, who is known for speaking out against COVID-19 lockdowns.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest will travel to Calgary Thursday to formally launch his campaign. Another prospective contender who is expected to enter the race within the week and has made his stance against Bill 21 widely known is Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.

After the Quebec teacher was removed from the classroom under the law, Brown panned the rule as discriminatory and said freedom of religion is a fundamental principle that has to be upheld.

He spearheaded an effort for cities, including his own, to pledge $100,000 toward the legal fight.

"We are pleased to see that some of the leadership candidates, for example, Patrick Brown, have taken a strong stance on Bill 21. And we look forward to seeing other leadership candidates take similar stances," Farooq said.

Brown said during the city's COVID-19 briefing Wednesday his decision about entering the race will be made soon.

"I certainly believe that I need to make a decision in the coming days, given the fact that the race has already started."

As he mulls a run for the leadership, Brown and CTV resolved a years-long legal dispute about a story that sank his career as leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives just months before the 2018 provincial election.

Brown had filed an $8-million defamation suit against the broadcaster after it published allegations against him of sexual misconduct, which he has denied.

A statement sent by the broadcaster and Brown said "key details provided to CTV for the story were factually incorrect."

The statement does not specify what those details were and a spokesperson for CTV declined to elaborate.

After the story was published in January 2018, a correction was included updating the age of one of two women who made accusations against Brown.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.

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