October 2018 was less than two years after a madman named Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire in a Quebec mosque, killing six people. And October 2018 was the same month a gunman walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire, killing 11. By that time, reported hate crimes in Canada had reached an all-time high, with every other week bringing a new report about hateful vandalism appearing in public spaces.
October 2018 was also the last time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in at length on the plan by Quebec Premier FrançoisLegault to implement a ban on religious symbols worn by public servants — a xenophobic dog whistle, for those trained to hear the call.
Not unlike the proposed “values charter” tabled by the Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois, Legault’s religious symbols ban will prohibit teachers and other provincially employed “authority figures” from wearing symbols of faith on the job.
While its defenders point out that the ban will apply to Christians as much as Muslims, Sikhs and Jews — though the crucifix hanging in Quebec’s National Assembly will stay in place, for now — the message is clear in the context of Quebec’s enduring anxieties over immigration and diversity. A province obsessed with maintaining its language and culture is not drawing up legislation to rid the public sector of tiny crosses worn around teachers’ necks.
So back in October, Trudeau issued a warning. When asked about Legault’s threat to use the charter’s notwithstanding clause to implement the ban, Trudeau said: “It’s not something that should be done lightly, because to remove or avoid defending the fundamental rights of Canadians, I think it’s something with which you have to pay careful attention.”
Trudeau also said, ostensibly in reference to clothing such as hijabs, that the state should not “tell a woman what she can or cannot wear.”
Legault has threatened to use the notwithstanding clause to implement his religious symbols ban. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
It was tepid language for a nakedly bigoted proposal — strikingly so, especially when viewed through the lens of today, after the monstrous act of violence and hatred carried out in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
The attack on two mosques there last Friday, which left 50 people dead and dozens more injured, struck a nerve globally in a way the Quebec mosque shooting simply did not. Perhaps it was because of the scale of the violence, or in part because the massacre was live streamed on social media, but the Christchurch attack appears to have catalyzed action worldwide.
Here in Canada, the response was swift. The Liberals on the Commons justice and human rights committee, which had been investigating the SNC-Lavalin affair, shut down its inquiry and took up an investigation on how to stem hate crimes in Canada. Cabinet ministers started showing up at mosques to demonstrate their solidarity with the Muslim community. And the prime minister delivered an impassioned 17-minute speech in the House of Commons about the need to speak out against hatred and discrimination.
“The problem is not only that politicians routinely fail to denounce this hatred — it’s that, in too many cases, they actively court those who spread it,” Trudeau said at one point, taking a not-so-subtle shot at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
“To politicians and leaders around the world: the dog whistle politics, the ease with which certain people choose to adopt extremist ideology — it has to stop.”
Trudeau went on:
“Politicians stand around, and we offer our condolences, and we say nice things in the aftermath. We say that we’ll do better. We say that never again will such hatred be allowed to fester unchallenged. And then, when the flames die down, and the smoke clears, we look the other way.”
Not looking the other way
Legault has signalled he will table his religious symbols ban sometime this spring. If passed, it will essentially allow the state to discriminate against job applicants because of what they wear for their faith. Vigilante enforcement is sure to follow, given that the province says it will grandfather in workers who already wear religious symbols, though the public will have no way of knowing whether a hijab-wearing teacher, for example, has been granted an exception, or if she is breaking the rules.
So here is an opportunity for Trudeau to put his preaching into practice. It’s easy to call out hatred when it is blatant: an anti-Muslim screed on an online message board or a swastika painted on the side of a building. It is also easy to insist we must speak out against bigotry and xenophobia as general concepts, from a nonspecific source.
It is much more difficult, however, to call out dog whistles and subtle efforts at division and prejudice. Especially in an election year. Especially when it comes from Quebec.
I hold little hope that Scheer is capable of doing so; based on recent appearances and performances, it’s likely he would short-circuit, smile awkwardly and later insist that he didn’t hear the question. But Trudeau stood in the House of Commons earlier this week and specifically called on politicians to own their influence.
To repeat Trudeau’s words: “Politicians stand around, and we offer our condolences, and we say nice things in the aftermath. We say that we’ll do better. We say that never again will such hatred be allowed to fester unchallenged. And then, when the flames die down, and the smoke clears, we look the other way.”
The flames may die down and the smoke clear by the time Legault tables his legislation. Trudeau’s message that politicians should not allow hatred to fester unchallenged is a necessary one. Yet his anemic response when the topic came up in October was the moral equivalent of looking the other way. In the aftermath of the New Zealand massacre, we should hope that he finally takes his own advice.