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Vancouver committee calls for city to contribute $100,000 to fight Quebec’s controversial Bill 21

Coun. Jean Swanson drafting motion for February council meeting
An advisory committee to city council wants the city to contribute a minimum of $100,000 to help support a legal fight against Quebec’s Bill 21, a securalism law that prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols including turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes and crucifixes.

An advisory committee to Vancouver city council has recommended the city contribute a minimum of $100,000 to help support a legal fight against Quebec’s controversial law that prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols including turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes and crucifixes.

The city's racial and ethnocultural equity advisory committee was unanimous Dec.13 in its decision to recommend council unlock the money for the fund. The $100,000 request would match what Toronto and Brampton, Ont. councils contributed.

“It’s not just a Quebec issue, it's a Canada issue,” said Stephanie Kallstrom, the chairperson of the city’s racial and ethnocultural equity advisory committee. “And it’s a Canada issue that continues to showcase inequality of racialized people in this country. The bill incites racism, and that's an issue that concerns Canada, not just Quebec.”

Quebec’s National Assembly passed Bill 21 in 2019.

Since then, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have led a legal fight against the bill, with the case currently before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada is also an intervenor in the challenge.

Municipal councils across the country have passed motions to condemn the bill, while others such as Brampton and Toronto have contributed money. Victoria council also recently pledged $9,500.

'It's not really fair'

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 the bill.

Coun. Jean Swanson now wants to update that motion with a $100,000 contribution. She said Wednesday that she is drafting a motion that will likely go before council at a meeting in February.

In the meantime, she has encouraged members of the committee and citizens to reach out to the mayor and other councillors about the importance of financial support. Swanson, so far, has not found another member of council to second her motion.

“It’s not really fair to put the burden of fighting an issue of religious freedom onto a racialized group,” she said. “If the court decides in favour of Quebec, then it will affect the whole country, including Vancouver.”

Kirby-Yung told Vancouver Is Awesome in a recent interview that she wouldn’t support the city contributing to the legal fund.

She pointed to the majority of council’s decision in December to raise property taxes by 6.35 per cent and approving a budget that was unable to fully fund all programs related to equity, diversity and racialized groups.

The advisory committee made it clear in its recommendation to council that it wouldn't support taking funds from work related to Vancouver’s "equity-deserving communities as outlined in equity framework and city of reconciliation and other equity focused work and community engagement, considering how this bill amplifies inequality of racialized people.”

Asked where the $100,000 should come from, if approved by council, Kallstrom said it wasn’t a decision for the committee to make.

“The city spends money on a variety of things that could be diverted into anti-racism, that could be diverted into amplifying voices of racialized people and reconciliation work,” said Kallstrom, an Afro-Peruvian woman who works for a non-profit organization in the Downtown Eastside that advocates for marginalized people.

“The reality is that it's a very small portion of the city's [$1.6-billion] budget, and it shouldn't be. So it's really not up to the committee to find the money, it's really up to the city to find the money and to prioritize where the money is coming from.”

'Tidal wave of support'

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the equality program director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the organization has seen in the past couple of weeks “a tidal wave of support” for the legal challenge from elected officials and other Canadians.

“And it’s a tidal wave that says the people in this country are committed to the values of equality, freedom of religion and diversity,” she said Wednesday. “Those shared values are being expressed across the country, and it is heartening to know that that is how so many people in Canada feel.”

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