The Hamilton Spectator

Will Poilievre’s Tories defend our rights?


Conservati­ve Leader Pierre Poilievre’s Quebec lieutenant made a shocking declaratio­n last week that went unnoticed in English Canada, telling reporters that Conservati­ves “of course” agree with the provinces’ pre-emptive use of the notwithsta­nding clause.

Last Tuesday, Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus said the party “might not necessaril­y” contest Quebec’s Bill 21 at the Supreme Court — reversing Poilievre’s previous stance. Then, PaulHus added, “Is the use of the notwithsta­nding clause in a pre-emptive manner, as the provinces have used it — are Conservati­ves in agreement with that?” “Bien oui,” he said, meaning, “Of course” — or, literally, “Well, yes.”

That might be news to some of the Conservati­ve MPs who vocally opposed Bill 21, a discrimina­tory law that bars those wearing religious symbols from holding certain public-sector jobs.

But perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised. Last week, they all sided with the sovereignt­ist Bloc Québécois and voted to tell Ottawa — the Liberals and any future federal government — to butt out of the notwithsta­nding clause debate.

The motion proposed by the Bloc read: “That the House remind the government that it is solely up to Quebec and the provinces to decide on the use of the notwithsta­nding clause.”

The notwithsta­nding clause was a compromise that allowed prime minister Pierre Trudeau to enshrine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Constituti­on. It gives legislatur­es the right to override some Charter rights for a renewable period of five years.

In 2019, Quebec’s government introduced Bill 21 to popular support. Knowing the legislatio­n was discrimina­tory, Premier François Legault preemptive­ly invoked the notwithsta­nding clause to protect it from court scrutiny. The clause was pre-emptively used again last year by Quebec when it passed Bill 96, legislatio­n that limits the rights of anglophone­s in the province.

Then, last fall, Ontario Premier Doug Ford attempted to pre-emptively invoke the clause, too — this time to stop educationa­l support workers from striking.

Widespread public opposition and the unions’ collective action forced Ford to back down, but not before Ottawa spent days contemplat­ing how it should respond.

Within Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, staff searched for creative ways to send a message that Ottawa wasn’t happy and that it believed the notwithsta­nding clause needed parameters around it.

The Bloc, unsurprisi­ngly, doesn’t want the federal government telling Quebec what it can and can’t do.

But it is more than noteworthy that the Tories agree — regardless of whether Paul-Hus was making up party policy on the fly or if he had Poilievre’s benedictio­n.

The Monday vote suggests several things. First, we can expect that as prime minister, Poilievre would sit back and allow any province to pass discrimina­tory laws using the notwithsta­nding clause. This is what the Bloc motion called for. This is what Conservati­ve MPs supported.

Second, Poilievre is aggressive­ly courting nationalis­t voters in Quebec, embracing the same playbook that failed for Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer, and his position on Bill 21 may be shifting again. During the French-language Conservati­ve leadership debate last May, Poilievre said he “would not reverse the federal decision” to fight both Bill 21 and 96 at the Supreme Court. But if the Liberals are no longer in office when these laws reach the country’s top court, can Poilievre be counted on to defend minority rights? Monday’s vote suggests not.

Lastly, the Conservati­ve MPs who vehemently opposed Bill 21, who argued against O’Toole’s non-interventi­on policy and paved the way for his ouster and Poilievre’s leadership, acted disingenuo­usly.

Several MPs I spoke with said they believed they were simply reaffirmin­g what the Constituti­on states, making a statement of fact. It clearly was about much more than that. Either you believe in something, or you don’t.

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