Justin Trudeau offered relatively mild criticism on Thursday of a new Quebec law that bans people from providing or receiving public services with their faces covered and asserted that it's not up to the federal government to challenge its constitutionality.
The prime minister's response to Bill 62, passed Wednesday by Quebec's Liberal government, is in stark contrast to his swift, vehement and unrelenting attacks on the charter of Quebec values proposed by the former Parti Quebecois government four years ago.
The PQ proposal would have banned public servants from sporting any ostentatious religious symbols. Trudeau once equated the fight against it to that of Martin Luther King's fight against segregation, discrimination and the notion that there are second class citizens.
Trudeau's response to Bill 62, widely seen as targeting Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka, is also a far cry from his unequivocal denunciation during the 2015 election campaign of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's insistence on banning face coverings for anyone taking the oath of citizenship.
"It's not up to the federal government to challenge this," Trudeau said Thursday in Roberval, Que. where he spent the day campaigning for the Liberal candidate in Monday's federal by-election.
He would not say whether he believes the law violates the charter of rights, saying only that "there's going to be a lot of reflections on" the law's constitutionality.
He added that the federal government "will certainly be looking at how this will unfold, with full respect for the national assembly that has the right to pass its own laws."
During the 2015 campaign, Trudeau accused Harper of practicing "the politics of division and even fear" that was unworthy of a country as diverse and inclusive as Canada. But now he says it's "healthy" to have debate on Bill 62, which goes much further than Harper's ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.
"I believe that we have an obligation to defend everyone's rights, even when it makes us uncomfortable," he said Thursday.
"In Quebec and Canada we are not necessarily used to seeing a woman with a veil. That makes us uncomfortable. We wonder why she is doing that, is she required to do that? But if you want to prevent women from being forced to wear a veil, maybe you don't want to be a society that forces women not to wear a veil.
"It's a difficult issue. It's a very healthy debate that we're having now."
In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Trudeau said his position on what people can and cannot wear "has always been known and it's where I'll always be." He linked to a speech he gave in March 2015, where he used considerably more forceful language to denounce Harper's niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies than anything he said Thursday.
"Those who would use the state to restrict women's religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn," he said then.
"It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear."
Worse, Trudeau said, Harper's stance "is nothing but an attempt to play on people's fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith."
Trudeau was the leader of the third party at the time, attacking a political opponent. On Thursday, he was the prime minister responding to a law passed by a friendly Liberal provincial government.
Moreover, he was asked to comment on the law while campaigning in a nationalist region of Quebec, where the face-covering law is most likely to be supported, in a riding the federal Liberals would dearly love to pick up from the Conservatives on Monday.
Bill 62 presents challenges to all the main federal parties, for whom the niqab became a defining issue of the 2015 election campaign.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose party lost support among new Canadians in 2015 for its stance on the niqab and other issues seen as anti-Muslim, has said nothing about the law so far. But his deputy leader, Lisa Raitt, dodged questions about it on Wednesday.
"It's a matter for the Quebec legislature. It's a Quebec law, and we are not, we're going to focus on things that unite us, not divide us. And maybe it's from experience of what happened in 2015 that we want to focus that way," she said.
Newly minted NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been the least equivocal of the main party leaders on the law, even though his party blames former leader Tom Mulcair's opposition to Harper's niqab ban for the crushing loss of NDP seats in Quebec.
"I'm completely opposed to the bill but I am completely confident in the existing protections that are in place in Quebec that will protect human rights," said Singh, who stressed that he respects Quebec's right to pass the law but he hopes it will be struck down in the courts.
Quebec Liberal MPs have, for the most part, echoed Trudeau's newfound caution on the issue.
However, Montreal MP Alexandra Mendes called Wednesday on Trudeau to initiate a court challenge to the Quebec law, saying she presumed the prime minister would agree with her since he was "pretty clear during the 2015 election."
On Thursday, Mendes issued a statement, saying she's "proud of our prime minister" for reiterating that "it is not the role of the state to restrict the freedom of people's clothing choices." She made no reference to his refusal to challenge the law.
– With files from Giuseppe Valiante