10/18/2019 21:28 EDT

Trudeau Won't Say If He Thinks Bill 21 In Quebec Is Discriminatory

The secularism law has been a hot topic during the federal election campaign.

WHITBY, Ont. — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is refusing to say whether he thinks Quebec’s secularism law is discriminatory, even as he says governments should not tell people how to dress.

“I have made it very clear that I do not think that a government should be telling people what it is they should or shouldn’t wear, but Quebecers themselves are taking this law to court and defending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as is their right,” Trudeau said during a campaign stop Friday at a baby store in Whitby, Ont.

It was the second day in a row Trudeau did not answer a direct question about whether he thinks the Quebec secularism law, also known as Bill 21, is discriminatory.

“I have said that my federal government would not intervene at this stage, but I also have not closed the door to intervening at a later stage,” said Trudeau, who is the only federal party leader on the campaign trail who has not ruled out getting involved at some point.

“Because we understand that a federal government always needs to be there, potentially, to defend rights, like women’s rights, like LGBT rights, like minority rights, like the rights of francophones outside of Quebec.”

Cole Burston via Getty Images
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks to a room of supporters as he takes part in a campaign rally ahead the federal election on Friday in Vaughan, Ont.

The controversial secularism law — known as Bill 21 — bans some public-sector employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, such as hijabs for Muslim women and yarmulkes for Jewish men.

The law is overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who leads a self-proclaimed nationalist government under the banner of the centre-right Coalition Avenir Quebec, has said the law is legitimate and reflects the will of the French-speaking majority.

The Quebec government also invoked the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to avoid having the law struck down as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Angela Keller-Herzog, the Green candidate in Ottawa Centre, said the “biggest disappointment in this election” for her is that no national leader, including Elizabeth May of the Greens, has had the courage to call Bill 21 out for what it is.

“Bill 21 in Quebec is overtly racist,” she said.

“I think all these boys and girls — if they want to be national leaders that’s just not on,” she said.

“I understand that all the parties want to get votes in the province of Quebec, but at a certain point, if you’re a national leader then you have to stand on certain values and principles, right?” she said. “You can’t just brush those aside in order to get three, four more votes.”

Cole Burston via Getty Images
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to a room of supporters as he takes part in a campaign rally ahead the federal election on Friday in Vaughan, Ont.

Trudeau was campaigning in the Greater Toronto Area , one of the most seat-rich regions in the country and where more than half the residents are visible minorities.

The riding of Whitby, an area that was long represented by the late Jim Flaherty, a Conservative finance minister, was one of the seats the Liberals picked up in the suburbs surrounding Toronto in 2015.

The Liberals held it with candidate Celina Caesar-Chavannes, but she told Trudeau in February, the same day former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin affair, that she was not seeking re-election.

It was an “emotional” conversation, Trudeau’s office later said, while Caesar-Chavannes said Trudeau yelled at her. She quit the Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent MP the next month.

On Friday, Trudeau was asked whether he was in the riding because he is worried the Liberals will lose it.

“We’re not taking any votes for granted anywhere across the country,” Trudeau said after saying he wished Caesar-Chavannes the best.

Canadian Press
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau poses with supporters during a campaign stop in Orillia, Ont. on Friday.

One of those places that Trudeau appears to be heading is Calgary, where the Liberals have started advertising a rally in the city for Saturday night. Nirmala Naidoo, the Liberal candidate in Calgary Skyview, is promoting the event as featuring Trudeau on her Facebook page.

Later on Friday, the Liberal campaign rolled into Orillia, Ont., where Conservative Bruce Stanton has been the MP for the riding of Simcoe North since 2006.

Jim Watt, who was in the crowd to welcome Trudeau, said Stanton has been a good MP, but he thinks it is time for a change. Still, he said the area is a challenge for Liberals.

“Oh yeah, this is rural Ontario,” he said. “This is where the traditional Conservative vote is, for sure. I think the people that have been brought up with the Conservatives, their parents were Conservative and they continue on with that tradition, and small-business people too.”

Climate change a hot topic

There were climate activists there, including Daniel Tucker, 20, who said he has spent every Friday raising awareness about climate change outside city hall.

Tucker, who was inspired in part by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has been leading climate rallies around the world, said he does not think the Liberal platform is strong enough to combat global warming.

“The analogy that I like to use is that there is a meteorite coming and there is a bunch of people arguing whether or not it exists,” he said. “We need to act like this is an emergency. We need to act like we take this seriously, because we can’t just sit around with business-as-usual politics and expect this to get better.”

Earlier Friday, Trudeau stopped in Markham, Ont., where he signed a shovel to indicate his support for the Toronto area’s Yonge subway extension, unbeknownst to the media covering the Liberal campaign, who are travelling on a separate bus.

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, who has called on all federal party leaders to commit to starting construction on the extension before the next election should they hold power after the Oct. 21 vote, shared a video of Trudeau signing the shovel on Twitter.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also committed to helping fund the extension earlier this month.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s $28.5-billion transit expansion plan includes $5.6 billion for the Yonge extension. Ford has said he wants the federal government to join Toronto and York Region to help pay for it, but has conceded the province will foot the bill if needed.

The expanded Yonge line would add 7.4 kilometres of new light rail that would connect Toronto to the fast-growing regions of Richmond Hill, Markham and Vaughan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2019.

With files from Mia Rabson

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