Edmonton city councillors denounce Quebec's Bill 21

Edmonton city councillors used strong words Thursday to denounce Bill 21 in Quebec, calling the legislation discriminatory and racist.

Mayor Don Iveson says legislation forbidding religious symbols 'an offence to civil rights'

Several people from Edmonton's Sikh community spoke in front of council's executive committee Thursday, urging them to oppose the Quebec legislation. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

Edmonton city councillors are denouncing legislation in Quebec that restricts civil servants from wearing religious symbols as discriminatory and racist.

"Bill 21 is an offence to civil rights," Mayor Don Iveson said during an executive committee meeting on Thursday. "It is troubling, deeply troubling to all freedom-loving people." 

Quebec's controversial law forbids civil sector employees in authority positions from wearing religious symbols at public institutions. 

Iveson called it a "blatant disregard in the values of multiculturalism."

The comments came after councillors heard from a dozen Edmonton residents who spoke at Thursday's meeting. 
Moe Banga, councillor for Ward 12, says he was pleased by the attendance at Thursday's meeting. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Harman Kandola, vice-president of the World Sikh Organization in Alberta, said his organization is hearing from people in Quebec who are leaving the province to find work elsewhere.

"Choosing between faith and employment are not choices we should ever have to make," Kandola told the committee. "Our parents made them in the 1970s and '80s and we're being forced to make them again today on the cusp of 2020." 

He said there's concern that similar attitudes could trickle over provincial borders. 

"We're already seeing the rates of hate crimes increase in Quebec. We fear what this will mean for the rest of Canada," Kandola said. 

Coun. Scott McKeen put the topic on the agenda, asking his colleagues to back the move to "support in principle the legal challenge against the discrimination of freedom of religion proposed in Quebec's Bill 21." 

Coun. Moe Banga, who immigrated to Canada in 1978 from India and whose Ward 12 has a significant visual minority population, backed McKeen's motion.
"It's in our Charter of Rights to have freedom of religion and freedom of expression," Banga said.

He noted the turnout at the executive committee showed the overwhelming support for multiculturalism. 

"These folks I know are from all walks of life — that's how Canada was built and that's how we should maintain Canada."

Coun. Andrew Knack called Bill 21 "an incredibly racist law."  

Knack noted that Albertans backed the Quebec law more than people in any other province, with four in 10 of those surveyed saying the legislation is acceptable.

"It's incredibly concerning," Knack said. "We have work to do even in our own backyard." 

Despite the strong sentiment expressed by the committee, the motion is a largely symbolic gesture.

McKeen showed obvious disapproval that federal election candidates have not spoken out against the bill. 

"How that has not become a major election issue, and that they have not showed true leadership on that issue, is extremely disappointing, if not appalling," he said.

The motion goes before council on Oct. 22, where the entire council will be asked to vote to back legal challenges against the bill.

Other Canadian cities, including Calgary, Kitchener and Victoria, have condemned the legislation.