Although he still maintains it’s a matter Quebecers will have to settle for themselves, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says his party is consulting on its position on the controversial and “unfair” Bill 21.
In an interview with CBC’s The House airing Saturday, O’Toole said the Conservative caucus has discussed the law. He said he has tasked several people with reviewing the party’s stance on the law and Conservatives are consulting outside groups as well.
The bill, passed by Quebec’s National Assembly in June 2019, bans teachers and other government workers, including judges and police officers, from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kippas and turbans.
A teacher in Chelsea became a living symbol of the law’s effect early this month when she was removed from her classroom for wearing a hijab.
“The case of the teacher in [Chelsea] reminded people that this law has real impacts on people. I think it’s unfair,” O’Toole told host Chris Hall.
14:03Erin O’Toole reflects on a challenging year
The teacher’s removal has sparked renewed criticism of the bill. In a separate interview with The House, Farida Mohamed, head of the Montreal chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said the law means some women “will not have equal opportunity for employment.
“They will not have equal opportunities for promotion. And this is coming from a province that holds women’s rights and the equality of women as very high.”
Both O’Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said that, while they personally oppose the law, they won’t commit to intervening against it.
WATCH | Quebec premier reacts to the idea of federal intervention on Bill 21:
NDP Jagmeet Singh changed his own position recently, saying he would support federal intervention into a legal challenge of the law in Quebec.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has fiercely defended the law, saying some of the criticisms have amounted to “Quebec-bashing.”
Personal opposition, no federal action
“What I’ve always said is I don’t support this bill and would never do it federally. It is a Quebec decision … This is for Quebecers and their provincial assembly,” O’Toole said.
“What we’re doing is trying to say, how can we have a respectful discussion about this? Because yes, this really, really upsets people.”
O’Toole accused Trudeau of having “avoided this issue himself” and attempting to “play both sides of this.”
“We’ve said what we would do, which would never move forward on anything like this federally. But as I said, we are in the process of doing both some internal and external outreach on this issue,” O’Toole said.
He also said Conservative caucus members have heard from constituents upset with the law.
9:33Bill 21 debate, renewed
“There are a lot of people who have talked to their constituents, who feel who feel very much impacted and targeted by this. And that’s why it is personal,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole’s comments on Bill 21 came during a wide-ranging end-of-year interview with The House covering the pandemic, economic issues and the challenges he and his party face.
Since his defeat in the September election, O’Toole has faced attacks from some Conservatives over his leadership.
Sen. Denise Batters was kicked from the Conservative caucus after launching a petition calling for a leadership review. That petition now has more than 7,000 signatures — although O’Toole claims most are not party members.
“After any loss, people are disappointed, me more than anyone. But I’m in the process of growing and modernizing the party,” he said.
“Some people don’t want to see that happen. I’m not going to stop.”
O’Toole has been criticized for campaigning during his party’s leadership as a “true blue” Conservative and then taking a more moderate approach during the general election.
“I’m [a Conservative] that wants to meet the challenges of today,” he said.
Canadians should look for ‘new normal’: O’Toole
Asked about the rise of the Omicron variant, O’Toole said the focus for Conservatives remains on promoting vaccinations and boosters in order to find “a better balance than the lockdown we’ve experienced the last two years.”
“What we have to realize is this is very different than previous waves of the pandemic,” O’Toole said, pointing to high vaccination rates in Canada and other precautions that could be taken.
Several politicians, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, have warned recently that the Canadian public may no longer be willing to comply with harsh restrictions.
“I think there’s a fatigue,” O’Toole said, adding high levels of vaccination and other measures could keep people safe.
“That’s the new normal we have to start talking about rationally. And I think the public is ready for that.”
Economy driving issue for Conservatives
Conservatives have been laser-focused on the issue of inflation, relentless attacking the government in the House of Commons in recent weeks over the rising cost of living. The inflation rate hit 4.7 per cent in Canada in November, according to Statistics Canada.
Labelling the increase in prices “Justin-flation,” O’Toole’s party has sought to tie it to government spending — though some economists argue the issue is global in nature and may be short-term.
O’Toole said the government has failed to deal with a housing crisis, has not effectively managed its relationship with the United States and has mishandled pandemic support programs.
Asked what his party would have done differently, O’Toole referred to a campaign platform which promised to release federal land to build housing, to impose stricter oversight of pandemic benefits and to increase productivity across sectors through investment accelerators and intellectual property promotion.
“To recover from the half-trillion dollars of debt [incurred] in the last few years, we need all cylinders of our economy firing,” he said.