Quebecers are “not racist,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, as backlash continues over his choice of Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first-ever special representative on combating Islamophobia.
Elghawaby, who was appointed last Thursday, has since faced a flood of criticism and questions over an opinion piece she co-wrote in 2019.
In the piece, Elghawaby criticized Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans certain public-facing employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job. Pointing to a poll done at the time, she suggested “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.”
While the Quebec government says the law is intended to defend secularism — the province’s official policy of separating religion and state — critics like the National Council of Canadian Muslims have called it discriminatory and a law that “causes second-class citizenship.”
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Elghawaby clarified late last week that she does not believe Quebecers are Islamophobic. However, for officials in the Quebec government, her response has fallen short.
While Trudeau said on Tuesday that he supports Elghawaby “100 per cent,” he acknowledged on Wednesday that he was not aware of all her past remarks when he made the appointment.
He also spoke in English about the cultural differences in Quebec around secularism.
Quebecers, Trudeau explained as he walked into a caucus meeting, have come to “a place of defence of individual freedoms and rights and liberties” after they “suffered the yoke and the attacks on individual rights and freedoms of an oppressive church.”
“That comes with it a certain perspective around what secularism is and the role of religion in society that informs what modern Quebec is,” the prime minister said.
“Quebecers are not racists.”
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Rather, Trudeau said, “Quebecers are among the people who are the strongest defenders of individual rights and freedoms, along with a lot of other Canadians.”
The Catholic Church had a tight grip on the province in the mid-20th century — a reality that ultimately evoked an equally strong rejection in the province of religion’s role in public life. The province embraced its own version of France’s laïcité model, or its policy of official secularism.
As the Quebec government defends Bill 21 as a bid to protect this laïcité principle, the Superior Court of Quebec has raised concerns about its impact on religious communities and its “cruel” and “dehumanizing” consequences for certain people.
Elghawaby and co-writer Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said in the 2019 op-ed that a “poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported (Bill 21).”
This, they wrote, suggested “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.”
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The Léger poll Elghawaby and Farber referenced was published in the Montreal Gazette in 2019.
It also suggested that 28 per cent of those polled had a positive view of Islam, while 60 per cent had positive views of Catholicism.
Quebec’s minister responsible for state secularism has described Elghawaby’s remarks in the 2019 op-ed as “abhorrent” — and her subsequent explanation, he said, was “unacceptable.”
“She must resign, and if she does not, the government must remove her immediately,” Jean-François Roberge said in a statement on Monday.
Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair also penned a column in the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday arguing that “it was wrong of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to name Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first special representative on combating Islamophobia.”
“Trudeau says she’s there to fight prejudice and build bridges. She is not in a position to do that and it’s not because of haters, it’s because of what she said,” Mulcair wrote.
“When your job is fighting prejudice and you’ve made statements in the past that sound like a reflection of your own prejudice, you withdraw them and, ideally, apologize. You don’t dig in, or try to explain them away.”
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Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said on Tuesday he was “deeply hurt” by Elghawaby’s column and said on Tuesday that he had asked for a meeting with her to discuss them.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet announced a planned meeting with Elghawaby for Feb. 1, after telling reporters her remarks were “more divisive than unifying.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Trudeau said he was “very happy” to hear about the planned conversation.
“It’s super easy for people to simplify and try to attack either side,” he said.
“What we need is a conversation about the fact that we all agree that rights and freedoms need to be protected and how, in a pluralistic society, a place of diversity and strength, we’re able to not just coexist, but understand each other, respect each other’s priorities and desires, and build a better future.”
Elghawaby he said, is “open to those conversations and open to that engagement.”
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