Jagmeet Singh calls out NDP opponents for 'inconsistent' positions on niqab ban
Leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh openly opposes Quebec bill that would ban burkas in public, saying Niki Ashton and Guy Caron have been ‘inconsistent’ on issue.
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OTTAWA—On the eve of the only French debate of the NDP leadership race, contender Jagmeet Singh criticized two of his opponents for their statements on a contentious Quebec law that would ban face coverings, such as the niqab worn by Muslim women, for people who are giving or receiving public services.
Singh told the Star that he unequivocally opposes Quebec’s Bill 62, and predicted that, if passed, it would be found to contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as Quebec’s own human rights law.
He went on to call out two of his leadership opponents — Quebec MP Guy Caron and Manitoba’s Niki Ashton — for their positions on the matter, which he said amount to an “inconsistent understanding of human rights.”
Caron, the only Quebecer in the contest, released a “Quebec 2019” policy platform this week. It included a pledge to respect the Quebec legislature’s “authority” to pass laws on secularism, and said there is a consensus emerging from both left- and right-wing parties in the province over legislation that would impose some limits on religious clothing.
Caron’s platform also made clear that he personally believes government has no place dictating what people are allowed to wear.
Ashton, an MP from Manitoba, initially appeared to agree with Caron. In a statement this week to the Huffington Post, she said, “There is a consensus emerging” in Quebec on secularism, and that “the Canadian government should respect the will of Quebecers on this matter.”
She subsequently told the Star she disagrees with Caron’s position, but would hold judgment on the Quebec legislation until something is passed in the National Assembly. She emphasized that no government should dictate what people can wear, calling it a “line in the sand” that shouldn’t be crossed.
Singh dismissed the position of each candidate.
“To me, it doesn’t sound like a consistent position. It doesn’t seem like they’ve thought this through and provided a consistency, or a consistent respect for human rights,” he said.
“Human rights shouldn’t be a matter of popularity,” he added. “(Rights are) not supposed to be subject to the whims of the majority.”
The fourth candidate in the race, Charlie Angus, this week said he doesn’t trust politicians to legislate how women dress. “I also know that any legislation at the provincial or federal level has to be charter compliant and that’s the way it should be,” Angus said.
The debate over secularism and the appropriateness of religious symbols in public institutions has burbled through Quebec politics for years. Recent examples include a controversial proposition from the Parti Québécois during the 2014 election for a charter of “Quebec values” to legally enshrine a version of secularism in the province.
The leadership candidates vying for Thomas Mulcair’s position as party leader have all remarked on Quebec’s “distinctness” from the rest of Canada. As Caron’s platform for the province pointed out, Quebec’s historical experience — the Catholic Church was closely linked with government and provided social services like education until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s — has led to a particular debate on the separation of state and religion in the province.
Speaking with the Star on Saturday, Singh acknowledged the province’s “unique experience” in this regard, but added that Quebec society isn’t solely preoccupied with the question of secularism.
“It’s a nation that has a very clear commitment to social justice,” he said, alluding to social policies in the province, such as universal child care, which many have said indicate a more left-leaning political bent.
“There’s more to Quebec than just this one issue.”
The place of religious clothing like niqabs and burkas also came up during the 2015 federal election, in which a ban on niqabs and burkas for people taken citizenship oaths was hotly debated.
In the months since, many NDP insiders blamed Mulcair’s strong stance against the proposed niqab ban for their plummeting numbers in Quebec. The party went on to lose most of the seats it gained during the breakthrough “Orange Wave” election in 2011, when Jack Layton led the NDP to unprecedented success in the majority-francophone province.
The election also played out against the context of an increasingly visible Syrian refugee crisis — a chilling photograph of a dead toddler face down on a beach dominated the news — and featured an announcement from the Conservative party for a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line.
If Singh were to win the NDP leadership race — he raised more money than all three opponents combined during the second quarter of the year, but has also lagged in polls of NDP members — he would become the first person of colour to lead a federal political party.
He said Canadians must show solidarity with Muslim Canadians who may feel targeted by legislation on religious clothing.
“We need to oppose Islamophobia,” he said. “Hate is on the rise and we need to make a clear statement in opposition to that.”
Sunday’s NDP leadership debate begins at 2 p.m.
Party members begin voting for a new leader Sept. 17.