A slim majority of Canadians are opposed to a new law banning some public servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols at work, but there is no clear support across the country for a federal court challenge against the controversial legislation, a new poll has found.
A number of politicians and advocates for civil liberties have spoken out against the legislation, which bans newly hired teachers, police officers, judges and other Quebec government employees in positions of authority from wearing symbols of religious faith at work.
The law has also become the subject of international outrage, after Quebec Premier François Legault confirmed the law would forbid Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned advocate for girls’ education, from teaching in the province unless she removed her head scarf.
So far, however, the federal government has decided to stay out of a court challenge against the law that was launched by a Muslim student, Ichrak Nourel Hak, with the backing of the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Known as Bill 21 during the legislative process, the law was adopted by the National Assembly last month after the Coalition Avenir Québec government of Mr. Legault used closure to force a final vote.
Overall, 53 per cent of Canadians are opposed or somewhat opposed to the legislation, while 45 per cent support or somewhat support the measure, according to a new poll by Nanos Research.
Quebec is the only province where a majority of respondents (61.6 per cent) support the law. It is opposed by 36 per cent of Quebeckers.
By comparison, there is a majority who oppose or somewhat oppose the law in the Atlantic provinces (61.5 per cent), Ontario (60.4 per cent), the Prairies (56.8 per cent) and British Columbia (56.4 per cent). Support for the law outside of Quebec ranges from 44.8 per cent in British Columbia to 36.4 per cent in Ontario.
The Quebec government used the notwithstanding clause to protect the new law from being challenged on the basis that it infringes Charter rights to religious freedom.
The court challenge launched by Montreal lawyer Catherine McKenzie on behalf of Ms. Nourel Hak describes the law as an attack on the fundamental architecture of the Constitution, including equal application of the law and separation of provincial and federal jurisdiction.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned the law, but refused to call on the Department of Justice to intervene in the court challenge. Federal officials point out that Ottawa typically gets involved at the appeal stage of the judicial process when it decides to oppose a provincial law, and not in the initial challenge.
According to Nanos Research, 48 per cent of Canadians agree with the federal government’s decision to stay out of the legal process, while 38 per cent would like the government to launch a legal challenge.
Opposition to a federal intervention was highest in Quebec at 66 per cent, but there was no part of the country where more than half of respondents favoured a federal intervention.
Pollster Nik Nanos said there is a “significant amount of discomfort” with the law across Canada, but that Ottawa is likely on a strong footing by staying out of the legal battle for now.
“If you’re the federal government, you want to wait and see. These numbers suggest there is no rush to intervene,” he said.
Mustafa Farooq, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, is not asking Ottawa to intervene in the case that it has launched, but would like to see a more forceful condemnation of the law.
“When people are passing unconstitutional legislation, and the Prime Minister is not coming out every day to talk about this legislation, we think that more should be done," he said.
Nanos Research randomly surveyed 1,000 Canadians; participants were recruited by live agents by phone (both land line and mobile) and administered a survey online. The margin of error for the random survey is 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.