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