Winnipeg councillors say city needs to speak out against Quebec's Bill 21

Two Winnipeg city councillors are calling on their colleagues to back a motion expressing support for a constitutional challenge against Quebec's controversial Bill 21, which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols.

Councillors will present motion calling for support for constitutional challenge of religious symbols bill

City councillors Shawn Nason, second from left, and Janice Lukes, third from right, were joined at city hall Wednesday by residents from their wards and representatives from Winnipeg cultural groups who expressed concerns about Quebec's Bill 21. (Trevor Lyons/CBC )

Winnipeg city councillors Janice Lukes and Shawn Nason say the message they got from residents in their wards was clear: Quebec's Bill 21 is discriminatory, intolerant and dangerous. 

That's what prompted the pair to call on their fellow councillors to back a motion expressing support for a constitutional challenge of the bill.

"I think it's important to stand up. It's a strange world out there right now. All kinds of things are happening that I'm not comfortable with — that our constituents … aren't comfortable with," Lukes (Waverley West) told reporters at city hall on Wednesday.

"I think it's important as a human rights city, as home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, that we as council put forth a united front and speak up against this bill."

Quebec's legislation, passed last June, bans certain public servants, including teachers, police officers, and government lawyers, from wearing religious symbols — such as head coverings — at work.

Lukes and Transcona councillor Nason brought forward a notice of motion on Wednesday, which will ask councillors to support in principle a constitutional challenge to Bill 21 at the Oct. 24 council meeting.

The two councillors were flanked on Wednesday by residents from their wards and representatives from Winnipeg cultural associations.

"Just because I wear my hijab as an expression of worship does not mean that I will force somebody to believe in what I believe," said Tasneem Vali.

Bill 21 creates the potential for waves of intolerance, Vali said, that can flow toward places such as Winnipeg and Manitoba.

Canada 'should be a safe place to express myself and to worship as I please, as long as I don't hurt anybody,' said Tasneem Vali. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Those sentiments were echoed by Idris Elbakri, the president of the Manitoba Islamic Association.

"It beats me why a piece of cloth would pose a threat to anybody. It's a scarf. It's a turban. It's a kippah. It's a cross," he said.

"I also think that we need to speak loudly against this because, you know, is this going to move forward? Will there be other [measures]?"

Nason says the motion he and Lukes are bringing to city council next week is a chance for Winnipeg to ease the fears of its many religious communities.

"We've heard our mayor refer to Winnipeg as a human rights city multiple times, and I think this is a good opportunity for us as council to work in a collaborative way, and one that shows that we are an inclusive community," Nason said.

Bill 21 represents 'an infringement of basic rights and freedoms' that should be challenged regardless of region, says Simarpreet Singh. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Simarpreet Singh, who contacted Lukes with his concerns about Bill 21, says the legislation attacks basic human rights of all Canadians.

"We should, as Winnipeggers, as Canadians, stand up to any kind of discrimination that is happening across Canada, not just in Quebec," Singh said.

"We should stand up regardless of the region because it's an infringement of basic rights and freedoms."

A spokesperson for Mayor Brian Bowman wrote he hadn't seen the motion yet, but said Bowman "is opposed to Bill 21, which goes against everything he is trying to do to make Winnipeg an international leader for the protection and promotion of human rights." 

Several city councils across Canada, including in Calgary, Kitchener and Waterloo, have passed motions condemning Quebec's legislation.