Dan Fumano: Should Vancouver help fund fight against Quebec’s Bill 21?

Analysis: Vancouver could be next Canadian city to consider financial support for legal challenges against Quebec’s controversial religious symbols law.

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Two years after Vancouver’s city council supported, in principle, a legal challenge against Quebec’s Bill 21, now at least one councillor wants council to put its money where its mouth is.


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It wouldn’t be the first time Vancouver’s council has waded into matters outside a civic government’s traditional jurisdiction. This council has spent a significant amount of time on advocacy motions that essentially amount to writing letters to senior levels of government, or making a statement supporting or opposing something, often in response to matters across Canada or the world.

But funding the Bill 21 legal challenge — a debate that could be coming to Vancouver’s council in the coming weeks — is different from most other advocacy motions; it’s not just about writing a statement, it’s about writing a cheque.

If Vancouver’s council chooses to contribute, it wouldn’t be the first. Several municipal councils across Canada have already approved financial contributions to the legal challenge from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, World Sikh Organization and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association against Bill 21, a Quebec law banning certain public-sector workers, including teachers and police, from wearing visible religious symbols including hijabs, turbans, crucifixes and yarmulkes.


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In December 2019, Vancouver’s council unanimously supported a motion affirming its “support in principle” for “the legal challenge against the discrimination of freedom of religion as set out in Quebec’s Bill 21,” joining several other municipal councils and groups across the country in condemning the law.

More recently, though, several Canadian municipalities — including Toronto, Brampton, Ont., Winnipeg, and, just this week, Victoria — have gone a step further than denunciation, and kicked in money to help the legal challenge.

On Thursday, Victoria city council voted to contribute $9,500 to the cause, the Victoria Times Colonist reported , an amount said to represent about 10 cents per Victoria resident.


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The Times Colonist quoted city Coun. Sharmarke Dubow, who presented the motion to contribute financially, saying: “Although the Quebec government presented (the bill) as promoting religious neutrality of the state, it’s actually a thinly veiled attack on religious and cultural traditions of religious minorities.”

Now, Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson wants her city to follow the lead of Victoria and other Canadian municipalities. Swanson was glad council unanimously supported the 2019 motion to support the legal challenge in principle.

“But actions speak louder than words,” she said Friday. “My grandma always said that.”

Swanson said she’s currently trying to get her “ducks in a row” to introduce a motion to an upcoming council meeting seeking the funding approval.


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Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who has called Bill 21 “ racist ,” is now “considering how Vancouver could support the legal challenge to Bill 21,” his chief of staff Anita Zaenker said in a message Friday, adding Stewart will discuss the matter next week with staff and council “in preparation for the first council meeting of 2022 on Jan. 25.”

The 2019 motion to support the legal challenge in principle was introduced by Couns. Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung.

Asked Friday about the idea of providing funding, Dominato said: “I haven’t made up my mind one way or the other … I’m open to further discussion at council.”

For her part, Kirby-Yung said that while she believed it was important to publicly denounce Quebec’s religious symbols law in 2019, especially in light of an alarming rise in hate crimes in Vancouver, she had reservations about any funding motion.


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“In terms of financial allocation, we’ve got some pretty significant issues in our own city,” Kirby-Yung said. “I think charity begins at home, and we’ve got some pretty big issues to tackle and some financial challenges of our own in the city of Vancouver.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC last month that while he is “deeply” opposed to Bill 21, his government wouldn’t, at this time, step into any legal challenges.

Last month, Calgary’s city council passed a motion that, instead of a specific funding commitment, called for a task force to identify how the city could assist with the legal challenge against Bill 21.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek told The Globe and Mail last month : “When a federal government sits quietly by … you’re left with one order of government that actually has the guts to call it out.”


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On Friday, Halifax city Coun. Tony Mancini told SaltWire that he plans to seek his council’s approval to chip in $50,000 for the cause, acknowledging the issue was beyond the municipality’s traditional mandate, but saying: “When a call to action is needed, you need to do the right thing.”

Reached Friday in Toronto, National Council of Canadian Muslims spokeswoman Fatema Abdalla said: “It’s honestly incredible that we’re seeing cities across Canada step up and do their part.

“This isn’t about jurisdiction anymore, this is about basic human dignity … We all have a part to play in it, and municipalities are stepping up,” Abdalla said. “We’re calling on further intervention from Justin Trudeau and Ottawa.”

Swanson has been criticized from some corners for regularly introducing council motions concerning matters well outside the city’s traditional scope, such as expressing solidarity with Indian farmers or calling on the Canadian government to support efforts to make the COVID-19 vaccine more widely available in poorer countries.

“But I consider the city’s role is to advocate for its citizens,” Swanson said. “And none of those things are irrelevant to the citizens of Vancouver. They’re all very important.”

Swanson cited a quote from the recently deceased Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”



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