Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer suggested Tuesday there’s no inconsistency between his unwillingness to condemn Quebec’s secularism law and his promise to reopen a federal office to fight for religious freedoms abroad.
“This is a decision that was taken by the Assemblée Nationale, the elected members of Quebec, and we’re not going to intervene in this case,” Scheer said, at a press conference in Quebec City when asked if the province’s Bill 21 is not the kind of law he envisions the Office of Religious Freedoms fighting in other countries.
Bill 21, passed into law in June, prohibits civil servants in positions of authority, such as police officers and teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job, including turbans, crosses and hijabs. The restriction does not apply to people hired before the bill became law.
Watch: Trudeau and Singh square off over Quebec’s secularism law
Though the law is already facing legal challenges, polls suggest the legislation is popular in the battleground province where 78 federal seats are up for grabs. Quebec Premier François Legault has told federal leaders to stay out of the issue. Legault’s government pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause when passing the bill to thwart challenges based on religious freedom.
Asked how he can promise to be a prime minister who will stand up for the rights of all Canadians when he won’t commit to doing so for Quebecers affected by Bill 21, Scheer said his position on the issue has been consistent throughout the campaign.
HuffPost Canada’s Althia Raj twice asked Scheer if he personally finds the law discriminatory, noting that veteran Quebec MP and former cabinet minister Steven Blaney had said earlier that morning that he does not find it to be so.
The Tory leader would not give a straight answer, instead saying it is a decision of the province.
“We will not intervene in this case,” he said. “This is not something we would pursue at the federal level.”
Though each of the major federal leaders have criticized Bill 21, none have fully committed to fighting it in court as prime minister. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has kept open the door to intervening at a later date, and pushed NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at the official English-language leaders’ debate on why he will not do the same.
On the other side of the spectrum, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has argued throughout the campaign that Bill 21 is a matter of provincial jurisdiction and “hardly a polarization issue,” because of its popularity. Public opinion polls suggest the Bloc is surging in the home stretch of the campaign.
In the Tory platform, unveiled Friday, Scheer promises to bring back the Office of Religious Freedom. In 2016, Liberals replaced the office, established by the government of Stephen Harper, with the Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion.
The Tories say in their election document that the Liberals’ “Office of Everything” has accomplished nothing and that, with the persecution of religious minorities around the world, the need for an office dedicated to the issue has never been greater.
The office will “protect freedom of religion and belief and promote the Canadian values of tolerance and pluralism internationally,” the Conservative platform states.
Tory leader pressed on same-sex marriage
Scheer was also pressed Tuesday about his personal views on same-sex marriage, in light of his recent move to clarify on his perspective on abortion rights.
At the French-language debate hosted by TVA earlier this month, Scheer was repeatedly pressured to state publicly if he supports a woman’s right to choose. Scheer said at the time that Quebecers could be confident a Conservative government won’t reopen the debate.
The next day, Scheer told reporters that while he is “personally pro-life,” he will vote against any measures to reopen the matter. The Tory leader is a devout Catholic.
On Tuesday, Scheer was similarly asked to elaborate on his personal views on same-sex marriage and if he’d take the same approach as he is pledging with abortion: personally opposing the practice while protecting the law. As a backbench MP, Scheer voted against same-sex marriage in 2005 and, a year later, voted in favour of a motion to revisit the issue.
“Do you personally not support it but promise not to touch it if you are elected prime minister?” a reporter asked.
“I represented the views of my constituents and my own views at the time,” Scheer said of his earlier votes. “Society has moved on and I have moved on.”
Pressed to clarify where he personally stands, Scheer said he will protect the rights of all Canadians, including LGBTQ Canadians, and “defend the law.”
Asked again if that means he has the same approach to gay marriage that he does with abortion, Scheer said: “I will always protect the rights of LGBT Canadians and ensure that they have access to marriage. And protect the law as it stands.”
Scheer’s earlier opposition to same-sex marriage — encapsulated by a 2005 speech in the House of Commons where he compared recognizing gay marriage to calling a dog’s tail a leg — spurred the NDP’s Singh to rule out propping up a Tory government in a minority Parliament.
With polls still pointing to a tight race, Scheer was also asked Tuesday how he will get anything done if he wins the most seats but falls short of a majority.
“We’re going to get a majority government,” the Tory leader said. “My job in the next six days is to go get that majority government and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
With earlier files