I had high hopes for the mayor of Montreal. I thought that in all the discourse about Bill 21, Mayor Valérie Plante, the leader of Quebec’s most multicultural city, would take a stand against it.

Instead, despite evidence that applying the law will only hurt Muslim women and prevent the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh people of Montreal from participating fully in our democracy, Mayor Plante has publicly stated that despite her objections to it, she will uphold Bill 21.

I have therefore drafted an open letter to our Mayor in both official languages which you can read below. You can add your voice to mine on change.org and I encourage everyone opposed to this law and the Mayor’s stance on it to send it to City Hall via their contact portal.

Dear Mayor Valérie Plante,

As a citizen of Montreal, I was overjoyed to see that we had finally elected a female mayor. I thought that as a woman elected to head the most multicultural city in Quebec, you would do what is necessary to stand up for the people you were chosen to lead. It is therefore disappointing to see that you have publicly stated that while you disagree with Bill 21, you will enforce and uphold it.

I understand that your position is difficult. As a woman in politics you are under greater scrutiny than your male peers, and as leader of our City you feel obligated to uphold the law. But history does not remember those who enforced unjust laws while wringing their hands in supposed discomfort. History remembers those who stood up in the face of them and said NO.

According to a 2011 study by Statistics Canada, 5.6% of Montrealers are Jewish and 9.6% are Muslim. Another 1.3% of the city’s populations are Hindus and Sikhs. All of these people will be affected by this law and thus denied a chance to assimilate and participate fully in our democracy. In these troubled times, they turned to you for guidance and in response you have turned your back on them. We therefore implore you to reconsider your position and prove yourself to be the leader we know you can be.

Stand up and say the City of Montreal cannot and will not enforce Bill 21.

We are counting on you.

Add your name to the petition

Featured Image: Painting by Samantha Gold

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh just put a new face on the opposition to Quebec’s religious symbol ban: his own.

In an interview with CBC Radio Montreal’s Daybreak, host Mike Finnerty asked him about the new CAQ government’s promise vigorously enforce a religious symbol ban and fire civil servants (police, teachers, etc.) who wear religious symbols on the job. While most of the public focus has been on Muslim women who wear the hijab, Singh, a Sikh, who wears a turban and kirpan (Ceremonial dagger), would also be affected by this ban if he was a Quebec civil servant:

Singh responded to this the best way possible, Sure, he couldn’t very well have said that wearing a turban is fine for Prime Minister but not a schoolteacher, but it’s still good that he’s taking a solid stand. It’s also quite politically savvy of him to refer to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms when asked about the Canadian one.

This is way better than the “I don’t like it personally, but you’ve got to respect the courts” message former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair put out during the last federal election. Sure, the Bloc Québécois was attacking the NDP over their opposition to the Harper Government’s challenge to a court ruling that allowed women to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, but they were doing it viscerally and Mulcair responded with an appeal to respect judicial rulings and an attempt at partial appeasement.

Not sure what he was thinking, really. The staunch bigots were going to return to the Bloc regardless, unless the NDP changed its stance, which wasn’t going to happen. Progressives, on the other hand, were looking for stronger anti-Harper messaging.

Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister who won a Majority Government with more than a handful of seats in Quebec, including some former Bloc strongholds that had flipped to the NDP in the 2011 Orange Wave, had this to say on the subject at the time:

“You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up it is a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights. But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”

That was bold. That was principled. That’s what someone not politically timid and completely controlled by advisers who favour the safe choice says.

Too bad he turned out to also be a total shill for Big Oil, which, incidentally, was the other part of the Bloc’s attack on the NDP in 2015 (Muclair was kinda wishy washy on pipelines). The Bloc actually released an ad with an oil pipleline dripping crude that turned into a niqab.

Eco-left and hard right in the same ad. Only in Quebec, I guess.

This is a strange place politically. We embrace leftist ideals and inclusiveness on many issues, but then go and elect a reactionary provincial government that promises a form of exclusion that even Trump hasn’t tried.

I think Singh gets this. That’s why he made a point of mentioning his support of LGBTQ and women’s rights and that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer wants to head in the other direction along with his opposition to the religious symbol ban.

Singh, and everyone else, knows that the Bloc is imploding, this time with no outside help. He wants to make it clear to Bloc supporters jumping ship that voting Conservative means supporting a bunch of things that they may not be ready to get behind. They can’t greenwash or pinkwash their bigotry this time.

What’s most interesting, though, is how Singh is attempting to redefine the ban on religious symbols as anti-secular. During the interview (not during the clip above), he said:

There’s no way to say that you’re not supporting one identity or other, because there are certain identities that don’t require a kippa. But there are other identities that have headgear. I think it’s a hard argument to make, that one is more neutral than the other, because there’s always a certain tradition that may not have headgear and one that may or may not have a certain way of dress. I think that the point should be that we we have a society that is secular through the values that we promote — that sets freedom and access to justice for all. That there’s no barriers based on who you are. Those are the ways that we ensure that it is a secular society.

He’s right. Secularism means no state religion, not the state banning individuals, including those working for the state, from wearing the garments of their religion on the job while at the same time keeping a symbol of one religion on display in the National Assembly.

Singh is also reminding Quebecers that Muslim women who wear hijabs aren’t the only ones targeted by this ban. Sikhs who wear turbans like him and Jews who wear kippahs are also in the crosshairs, if not in the spotlight.

Will this bold strategy work? Honestly, who knows. Quebec politics are always a gamble.

Sure, a recent poll showed that nearly two thirds of Quebecers are in favour of a religious symbol ban, but that poll doesn’t show how many of them consider it an important enough issue to base their vote on. Maybe the CAQ won in spite of their bigotry, not because of it.

One thing is clear, though: trying to play it safe by appeasing the hard right while running as a left alternative is a recipe for disaster, especially in Quebec. When Mulcair tried it, he effectively turned Trudeau into the principled, inclusive opposition to the Bloc and, in the eyes of the rest of Canada, Harper. At least Singh won’t make that mistake.

Whether this stance translates into a better Quebec performance for the NDP has yet to be seen. Regardless, Jagmeet Singh speaking out against the religious symbol ban and redefining what it means is what the federal NDP needs.

* Featured image Creative Commons via OFL Communications Department

Quebec City versus Ottawa. Quebec’s provincial government versus Canada’s federal one. It’s the sometimes amicable rivalry, sometimes bitter fight that has dominated our politics for the past fifty years or so.

Now, with the election of a Coalition Avenir du Québec (CAQ) government for the first time ever, it looks like things are going to change. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have already called out new Premier François Legault a couple of times, there’s only so much he can do without risking federal over-reach, which is never a good ideal in Quebec. Plus he will soon be busy fighting to keep his own job.

It looks like the next great intergovernmental battle, at least for the next three or four years, will be the National Assembly versus Montreal City Hall. Legault versus Plante. Here’s why:

From Side-Pander to Not Necessary

Back in the day, from the late 1960s to a few weeks ago, power always shifted between Liberal (PLQ) and Parti Québécois (PQ) governments. Both parties understood that Montreal votes were important enough for them to pander to us a bit during during election campaigns but not as important as votes off-island and across the rest of Quebec, which most of their policies were crafted to deliver.

Now, the governing party has almost no representation in Quebec’s largest city. They won only two seats here, Bourget and Pointe-aux-Trembles, both on the island’s eastern extremities. Flip them to any other party and the CAQ still has a strong majority.

The Island of Montreal and surrounding area as seen on the 2018 Quebec Election map

Legault has a mandate, but he didn’t get it from Montreal. He doesn’t even have to pretend to care about what Montrealers care about, he doesn’t need us to hold power. We’ve gone from a side-pander to not needed to win.

That doesn’t mean their policies won’t affect us. In fact, the most overtly reactionary will pretty much only affect us.

Montreal needs to stand up to the CAQ and, at least on a few issues, it looks like we already are or are prepared to.

Banning Religious Symbols

Legault has promised to strictly enforce Bill C-62 which bans those providing or using government services (teaching in a school or riding the metro, for example) from doing so while wearing religious symbols. He plans to use the Notwithstanding Clause if the courts stop him.

The PLQ,  who won the most seats in Montreal, are unlikely to fight against the implementation of a law they wrote and passed (sure, they probably thought they would get some votes on the right before the courts struck it down, but Legault won’t let the Canadian Charter stop him).  Québec Solidaire (QS), who came in second here, may help fight this, but they only have ten seats in a Majority Government.

Painting by Samantha Gold

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, on the other hand, has said she has no problem with civil servants wearing religious symbols, including police officers. She opposed Bill 62 as a candidate and while she said she will wait and see what the CAQ plan looks like, opposing it would just make sense.

The Greater Montreal area and the Island of Montreal are the most ethnically and culturally diverse parts of Quebec. It’s also where most immigrants live. Here, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a Jewish man wearing a kippah is not a strange sight, it’s part of daily life. They are members of our community with the same right to provide or avail themselves of government services as the rest of us.

Of course it’s like that. Montreal is a metropolis. Cultural, religious and ethnic diversity are essential parts of being and staying a world-class city, as important as a large population and a decent public transit system.

Close to two million people live on the Island of Montreal and over four million in the Greater Montreal area. The CAQ wants us to look as white and Christian as, say, Trois-Rivières with a population under 150 000. While he claims to be a Quebec nationalist, Legault’s attitude towards Quebec’s officially designated metropolis is not only bigoted, it’s also quite, um, provincial.

If Plante does ultimately end up refusing to implement the new Quebec Government’s plan when it comes to Montreal employees and people receiving services from the city, I don’t know what Legault could do to make her. Things could get interesting.

Implementing Cannabis Legalization

When it comes to legal weed, Plante isn’t taking a wait and see approach. In Montreal, you can smoke your legal cannabis anywhere you can smoke tobacco or vape, but you can’t spark a joint near schools, on a terasse, in hospitals, on a bus, or basically anywhere you can’t smoke a cigarette.

Legault, on the other hand, is considering a province-wide ban on smoking pot in public, such as on sidewalks or in parks. Basically he’s treating it like booze, while conveniently forgetting that there are public places called bars where you can legally consume alcohol and if you bring a sandwich to a park along with a bottle of wine, it’s a picnic.

Five Montreal boroughs, all held by the opposition party Ensemble Montréal (formerly Équipe Denis Coderre), are planning similar bylaws. While it’s a really out-of-touch idea, I understand how a borough can make such a regulation, just as I understand how a city can make an opposing regulation.

What I don’t get is how a provincial government can pass what should be a municipal zoning regulation to supersede existing zoning regulations. Pot smokers aren’t criminals anymore, just people facing fines if they light up in the wrong place.

If Plante tells the Montreal Police (SPVM) not to enforce provincial ban on smoking cannabis in public, except in the boroughs where it was banned, and they listen, would Legault send in the SQ to enforce it? Could that even work?

Public Transit

And then there’s the Pink Line. A Plante campaign promise that would see a new metro line run from Montreal North through Rosemont, the Plateau, Downtown and NDG, all the way to Lachine.

As bold as that is and as pie in the sky as it may sound, Plante already got the Federal Government to sign off on investing money in it. While QS fully incorporated it into their transit proposal, Plante decided to have a photo-op during the campaign with Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard who had only said he would consider it.

It’s clear her transit plan caused her to have an unofficial ABC (Anyone But CAQ) approach during the campaign. And with good reason: Legault had said his administration would oppose the new metro line.

Plan for the proposed Montreal Metro Pink Line

So, faced with the worst possible election outcome for the future of the project, Plante adopted a go big or go home approach and announced yesterday that she was moving ahead with the Pink Line and creating a project office to study the potential impact on urban development, mobility and socio-economic needs.  This office will compliment studies the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) is already doing and have a budget of $1 Million.

Basically, if project office determines that the Pink Line is feasible and shows how it can be done right, and two thirds of the money is already there, Legault, who will probably be sitting on a pile of legal cannabis sale revenues and tax money by then, will be boxed into a corner. It’s a bold strategy and one that may pay off.

Whether it does or not, prepare for a fight. Maybe a slow-moving, incredibly polite and bureaucratic one, but a fight nonetheless. A political fight on three, maybe more, fronts. Montreal versus Quebec has just begun.