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Vancouver won't give $10K to legal fight against Quebec's controversial Bill 21

Six councillors wanted to unlock funds but vote required two-thirds majority
Vancouver city council didn’t register enough positive votes Wednesday to unlock $10,000 to help support the legal fight against Quebec’s Bill 21, which prohibits public servants from wearing such religious symbols as a hijab.

Vancouver city council will not contribute city money 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 decision came despite six councillors voting to contribute $10,000 to the legal challenge brought on by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

But because a two-thirds majority was required for Coun. Jean Swanson’s motion to pass — as stated in the Vancouver Charter — the vote failed. The motion’s defeat came despite a plea earlier in the meeting from Mayor Kennedy Stewart to unlock the $10,000.

“There's all kinds of things we might do and should do in the future, but here's the choice in front of us right now,” Stewart told council. “And it'd be embarrassing not to fund this. So please vote yes.”

Stewart joined Swanson and councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry, Michael Wiebe and Christine Boyle in voting to contribute the $10,000.

Councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung, Lisa Dominato, Colleen Hardwick and Rebecca Bligh voted against, largely based on the city’s tight financial situation.

Coun. Melissa De Genova was absent for the vote.

“We all want to do the right thing,” Hardwick said. “But at the end of the day, the money that we're spending is public funds that comes directly or indirectly from our residents. And given the constraints on our budget, we can't fund everything.”

Swanson originally considered requesting $100,000 in her motion, based on the recommendation of the city’s racial and ethno-cultural equity advisory committee. The $100,000 would have matched what Toronto and Brampton, Ont. councils contributed.

Victoria council agreed to $9,500.

“I know we don't have a lot of money, but we do have a reserve fund of about $45 million,” Swanson said.

“So I reduced it from over $100,000 down to a measly $10,000, just so the city can show in a concrete way that we as a city — not as individuals, but as a city — have the backs of people who are going to be discriminated against because of this bill.”

The vote came after hearing from Guntaas Kaur, the vice-president of the B.C. chapter of the World Sikh Organization Canada. The organization is an intervenor in the Bill 21 challenge that is currently before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

Kaur thanked council for voting unanimously in 2019 to condemn the bill.

“This motion before you represents the next step in that condemnation, taking action against discrimination, standing in allyship with your neighbours of all faiths,” she said.

“In the times we live in, money is one of those tangible actions that speaks volumes. The act of contributing funds to a cause raises awareness. But in this instance, I will also say it raises spirits.”

In an emailed statement following the vote, Kaur said she was grateful to Swanson for bringing the motion forward. At the same time, she said she was disappointed in the outcome.

“The implications of Bill 21 go far beyond the borders of Quebec,” Kaur said.

“Overriding the [Canadian] Charter with the use of the notwithstanding clause to circumvent basic human rights by a provincial government, is, and should be, deeply concerning for all Canadians, regardless of whether we live in Montreal, in St. John's or here in Vancouver.”

Though the vote didn’t pass, Carr included an agreed-upon amendment to encourage council, businesses and organizations to personally contribute to the legal fight. Carr said she had donated $1,000, while Wiebe, Fry, Dominato, Swanson all indicated they plan to donate.

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