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Should City of Vancouver help fund legal challenge against Quebec’s controversial Bill 21?

Victoria, Toronto, Brampton have all contributed money to the legal fight
Vancouver city council is expected to decide before the end of January whether it will contribute funds to a legal challenge against Quebec’s controversial Bill 21, which prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab.

Should the City of Vancouver help fund a legal challenge against Quebec's controversial Bill 21, which became law in 2019 and prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols including turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes and crucifixes?

It's a question Mayor Kennedy Stewart wasn't prepared to answer Tuesday but Coun. Jean Swanson said she is considering drafting a motion that would request city funds be directed to the legal cause.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the World Sikh Organization of Canada are leading the challenge against Bill 21, with the case currently before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

Swanson said she wants to first hear what the city's racial and ethnocultural equity advisory committee decides Thursday on the funding question. The councillor acknowledged it would be an unprecedented move if she requested financial support and got approval from council.

"There's lots of cases where we get together and vote on something — supporting Indian farmers, for example — but I don't know about the money," she said when asked if there is any previous case related to a legal fight in another province where Vancouver council committed city funds.

'Discrimination of freedom of religion'

In 2019, council unanimously agreed to a joint motion from councillors Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung "to support diversity, equity, and access for all citizens and support in principle the legal challenge against the discrimination of freedom of religion" as set out in Quebec's Bill 21.

Several cities across the country, including Brampton, Toronto and recently Victoria, have all voted to contribute money to the legal challenge. Both Brampton and Toronto will provide $100,000 each, while Victoria pledged $9,500.

Stewart has publicly condemned Bill 21 but cautioned that legal decisions involving the city are made in in-camera meetings. He acknowledged it's been a topic among council, and a decision will likely be made either way in the week of Jan. 25, when council holds its first meeting of the year.

"That's about all I can say because of the in-camera nature of it," the mayor said Tuesday. "I'm just canvassing what the other cities are doing. Some have denounced the bill and are not putting funding in, while others are putting funding in."

'Charity begins at home'

Kirby-Yung, meanwhile, said she opposes the city contributing money to the legal challenge. Though she supports the fight — as set out in her joint motion with Dominato — Kirby-Yung noted the majority of council recently approved a 6.35 per cent property tax hike and couldn't fund all programs related to racial equity.

Anti-Asian hate crimes have also been on the rise since 2020.

"I would say we still have a lot of work to do here," she said, pointing to projects in Chinatown and work around a possible land trust connected to Hogan's Alley Society.

"Also, we are short funding on a lot of the different social issues that we have here in the city of Vancouver, whether it's dealing with homelessness or addiction. I would sort of follow the charity begins at home scenario and add our voice to the conversation, but I don't think we should be putting what are essentially taxpayer funds into the legal fight."

Fatema Abdalla, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said she was encouraged by the support in principle and financial support from various municipal councils in Canada.

"Legal challenges like this are fairly expensive, and marginalized communities across [Quebec] are fighting against a province with unlimited resources," Abdalla said.

"In order to level that playing field, a lot more [money] is needed. Seeing these city councils across the country step up and fight against the legal challenge of Bill 21 just showcases how important of a battle it is."

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