How Kenney, Mulcair and Trudeau took on Quebec's charter of values

The federal leaders frame their arguments

Reporting on Jason Kenney’s announcement today that the federal government might challenge Quebec’s so-called charter of values in court, the Canadian Press noted that the employment minister, who is also responsible for multiculturalism, was “uncharacteristically terse.”

In most instances, a politician might be praised for restraint and brevity. But in light of the proposed Quebec rules on what religious garb the province’s public servants would no longer be allowed to wear on the job—Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas, Muslim hijabs, and large Christian crosses would all be banned—Kenney might have allowed himself to get a bit more worked up.

“If it’s determined that a prospective law violates the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled,” Kenney said on Parliament Hill, “we will defend those rights vigorously.” Good to hear, but, as CP suggested, strangely clipped. Both opposition leaders offered more expansive responses, and both sought to ground their reactions explicitly in party lore.

For Justin Trudeau, this was an obvious tack. After all, he shares a father with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “We have a government that seems to want to hide from defending those freedoms,” Trudeau said today. He called Pierre Trudeau’s Charter ““the pride of the majority of Canadians including Quebecers.” And, needless to say, of Liberals.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair reached further back in history today to claim for his own party a link to the defence of religious freedoms in Quebec. In coming out against the Parti Quebecois’ proposed values code, Mulcair talked about how F. R. Scott— founding NDP figure and an icon of Montréal’s left—fought landmark court cases on religious freedoms the 1950s against then-Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis’ government.

With Trudeau and Mulcair both framing their reactions as flowing from their parties’ legal protection for religious and other freedoms, Kenney might have staked a Conservative claim. Why not, for instance, invoke former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been known to remark that Dief doesn’t get enough credit for that 1960 bid to entrench federal protection of freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly.

This might have been the very moment to recall that legacy. In the days to come, the Tories will almost certainly want to find their own way of talking more forcefully on this issue. But now they will have to play catch-up.