Right-wing populism in Canada
Is Trudeau's multi-cultural idyll in danger?

On 16 June, Quebecʹs National Assembly passed Bill 21, a controversial law banning certain public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Combined with tougher immigration laws introduced by the Francophone region, this would seem to indicate that part, if not all, of Canada is shifting inexorably to the right. By Richard Marcus

As Canada gears up for its next federal election in October 2019, the spectre of xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia, has begun to rear its ugly head. During the run-up to the last election in 2015, the outgoing Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) did its best to whip up support among the extreme right-wing by passing laws that played on fears of foreigners and Muslims, such as The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, and by attempting to make it illegal for women to cover their faces when giving an oath.

While the latter was struck down by Canadian courts as being unconstitutional, the former is still on the books, as even current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voted to allow its passage through the House of Commons. However, over the past four years, with Trudeau making good on his promise to allow more refugees from the Arab world into Canada, there has been a noticeable increase in far-right activity centred on "preserving our European heritage".

Marginal extremist organisations have been gaining strength due to the fact that CPC politicians, including Andrew Scheer, leader of the national party, and Doug Ford, premier of Canada's largest province Ontario, have lent them credibility by addressing their gatherings or having their picture taken with a known racist respectively.

Yet while both of these men's associations and their willingness to play the xenophobic card in their attempts to seize or consolidate power are troubling, the new provincial government in Quebec has them beat.

"Respecting Quebec values"

When Quebecʹs previous Liberal government tried to pass the infamous 'no covering your face' bill, they were laughed at and ridiculed. However, what few outside Quebec didn't understand was how many people didn't think the bill went far enough.

The right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec won a majority in the provincial legislative assembly on the back of promises to pass tougher secular legislation and introduce new guidelines for immigration (since Quebec is the only majority French-language province in Canada, it has more unilateral control over who immigrates to the province to ensure newcomers speak French).

While calling Bill 9, the immigration bill, a means to speed up the application process, this was accomplished by simply tossing out the 18,000 applications by skilled workers that are currently pending and starting from scratch, based on a new merit system.

When pressed about the fairness of this issue, Quebec's premier Francois Legault responded with some very telling words: "When a person arrives in Quebec, for me, there are three things that are important: learning French, respecting Quebec values and having a job. This is how we integrate people." All of which can be seen as code for "we are going to cherry-pick those who fit our idea of what makes a Quebecer".However, as contentious as the immigration bill is, it is nothing compared with Bill 21, the Religious Symbols Law. The new law will bar public school teachers, judges, lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work. Critics point out the new law will single out Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and Muslim women. As they are the newest immigrants and, in some cases, the most visible, civil rights organisations are especially worried about how this will impact women choosing to wear the hijab.

Neighbourhood watch?

Included in the bill are provisions for ensuring compliance and meting out punishment for failure to observe the ban. Opposition critics worry this will lead to "secular policing". There has also been talk of a tip line, which members of the public could use to phone the police to report those contravening the new law.

In order to prevent this new legislation from being challenged in the courts for contravening Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government has written a clause invoking the 'notwithstanding clause', which allows provinces to overrule the charter except when it comes to matters of religious freedom or interfering with someone's right to vote. This may still leave civil rights lawyers with some room for manoeuvre, the possible argument being that Bill 21 constitutes an infringement of religious freedom.

There's no word yet on whether or not the law will exempt Catholic symbols like crucifixes in hospitals or in the Quebec National Assembly on the grounds that they are part of Quebec's cultural heritage.

While all this is naturally upsetting for those living in Quebec, it's unclear who it will benefit in the upcoming federal election. The CPC is widely disliked in Quebec and while the Liberal party is strong in metropolitan areas that are multicultural, the rural districts are far more likely to respond well to any party that shows support for the new laws.

The most likely beneficiary of these laws at federal level would be the nationalist Bloc Quebecois. The left-leaning New Democrats will probably be hard pressed to hold on to their few seats in the province, as their new leader, Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh and regarded with suspicion.

Canada has long cherished its reputation for being a tolerant society, but that may soon be tarnished. Even Trudeau is caving to right-wing pressure by amending the country's asylum laws to make it more difficult for people seeking to claim refugee status. Although Canada is still a long way from being as unwelcoming to asylum seekers as Hungary or the USA, for example, there are unfortunately distinct signs that things may be heading that way.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2019

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