Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says citizens, not just governments, must play a role in ensuring that fundamental rights are defended after a Muslim teacher in Quebec was removed from her teaching position for wearing a hijab in class.
In a wide-ranging year-end interview with Rosemary Barton, CBC's chief political correspondent, Trudeau defended his government's response to Quebec's secularism law, known as Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols on the job by public servants in positions of authority.
"I disagree, and I always disagree, with Bill 21," Trudeau said in an interview airing today on Rosemary Barton Live. "I have also stated that I am not taking off the table intervening, at a future date, in a legal challenge."
Pressed by Barton about why his government has limited its opposition to words rather than taking that action against the law, Trudeau said defending rights is not just the job of governments.
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"The challenge we have on this one is making sure that people understand that fundamental rights need to be defended," he said. "Governments can and should defend them and have a role in it, but our fellow citizens can also be standing up for each other."
Trudeau went to to say "that's what we're seeing in Chelsea, where the community, where the families, where the kids, where everyone is saying, 'Hey this is wrong, that a young Muslim teacher loses her job just because she's Muslim.'"
Chelsea, Que., teacher removed from job over hijab
After working several months as a substitute teacher with the Western Quebec School Board, Fatemeh Anvari said she was asked to apply for a more permanent position teaching a Grade 3 class at Chelsea Elementary School.
Anvari began that job earlier this fall. But she said after just one month into her new position, the school principal told her she had to move to a posting outside the classroom because she wears a hijab.
On Tuesday about 150 parents, students and other community members in the small community of Chelsea, Que., held a protest over her removal at the office of Robert Bussière, the Quebec MLA who represents Gatineau.
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"A whole bunch of Quebecers are now wondering about what happens in a free society when you tell a Muslim woman she can't keep her job because she's Muslim," Trudeau said.
Trudeau has defended his government's decision not to intervene in the case, saying that Quebeckers are already challenging the province in court and that he will first let that process play out before making any legal moves of his own.
Quebec premier doesn't budge on controversial bill
Early last week, Quebec Premier François Legault said he didn't understand how Trudeau could intervene in a challenge to a bill that is supported by a majority in the province.
"Bill 21 was voted democratically, was supported by the majority of Quebecers," he said. "I don't see how the federal government can intervene in so touchy a subject for our nation."
Legault said the law does not contradict the principles of a free and open society "because people are free to wear, or not, a religious sign."
Trudeau suggested Quebecers' perspective on the bill may soften now that they have seen "not just the theoretical possibility, but a concrete example, of someone losing their job" because they wore a hijab.
While Trudeau is not ready to step into the legal fight over the bill, other governments are taking action. Earlier this week the city of Brampton, Ont., called on cities to join in a legal fight against the law.
On Thursday, Toronto city council unanimously voted to contribute $100,000 to support the joint legal challenge to the law being brought by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Trudeau said the debate over the bill is about defending rights, not about pitting one part of the country against the other.
"This is not about Quebecers versus the rest of Canada," Trudeau said.
'We're dealing with it' says PM on inflation
During the interview, Trudeau also addressed the issue of inflation. The federal Liberals have been relentlessly attacked by the opposition Conservatives over inflation, which has reached an 18-year high of 4.7 per cent.
"It's here and we're dealing with it," Trudeau said.
He pointed to the failure of global supply chains based on just-in-time delivery as a factor in rising prices.
"We need to build more resilience, so we're investing in that," Trudeau said.
The prime minister also committed to help Canadians struggling financially amid the pandemic and the rising cost of living.
"We've seen a need for greater supports for vulnerable people. We're investing in that," he said.
Increasing health transfers to provinces
Trudeau also committed to exploring changes to the way Ottawa funds provincial health-care systems across Canada. The country's premiers have long been pushing for more funding to bolster systems that were struggling even before the pandemic.
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"I have said many, many times, 'Yes, let's have a long-term conversation about funding of our health care and increasing funding to health care,'" Trudeau said. "But right now, we're just focused on getting through this pandemic."
The government's actions to help provinces during the pandemic prove that Ottawa is willing to do more, he said.
Trudeau expresses more regret over Tofino trip
Barton also asked Trudeau to reflect on lessons learned as a result of his decision to take a family vacation in Tofino, B.C., on the country's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Trudeau has repeatedly apologized for vacationing instead of attending a ceremony at the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc nation in Kamloops, to which he was invited.
"One of my bigger regrets is that first day of truth and reconciliation wasn't enough about reconciliation and healing … because of me," Trudeau said about the outrage over his vacation.
"I'm not perfect. Nobody is."