The Vancouver Voice is Missing From the National Human Rights Conversation

Surrey is set to become the first city in Metro Vancouver to go on record against a Quebec law that bans public servants in “positions of authority” from wearing religious symbols at work. 

If the motion passes when it’s tabled on November 18, that will make Surrey the ninth Canadian city to condemn Bill 21 since it passed this June. The law largely impacts Sikhs, Muslims and Jews who wear a turban, hijab or kippa, and is facing several legal challenges in Quebec’s Superior Court. 

Another British Columbian city, Victoria, was the first Canadian city outside of Quebec to pass a motion of this kind back in July. In October, Kelowna City Council joined the municipal movement. So why has B.C.’s most populous city failed to follow suit? Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart points to the busy agenda of the new city council.

“I think people are generally in agreement with me that it’s a terrible law, but at this point we just had our first year, and a lot of heavy lifting on local items.”

Toronto’s last municipal election was two days after Vancouver’s, yet this month the Ontario city still managed to unanimously pass a motion calling for a nationwide campaign opposing Bill 21.

While Kennedy hasn’t heard of, or initiated, a formal motion coming forward, he says that he plans to work with other mayors to see what they can collectively do to see this law reversed. 

“Cities aren’t bound by national borders. We can have those other conversations with other mayors and councils and spread good policy ideas that way,” says Kennedy. “We pack a punch because we have the same voters that the federal, provincial representatives need to get elected.”

In the new year, Kennedy says his government has plans to reach out to companies in Quebec to see if they would like to come to a more hospitable climate when it comes to multiculturalism.

It’s been two months since Amrit Kaur moved from Montreal to Surrey, B.C., where she is allowed to work as a teacher while wearing a turban.

The Surrey City Council is going to pass a motion that condemns Bill 21, because in B.C. there are incentives and steps being put in place that makes sure our society stays inclusive,” Kaur said on a phone call prior to the meeting. “I think that is the most reassuring thing for someone who has gone through what I’ve gone through.”

Kaur believes this law negatively impacts every Canadian who wears religious symbols.

“It’s telling people that they are not valued for their merits, that they’re second class citizens that they deserve to be looked down upon—that they are somehow deviant just because they have faith and an outward manifestation of that faith.”

She believes it will take a large scale, collective effort to debunk the negative stereotypes around religious people and people who wear religious symbols.

“Just to show that ‘Look, we’re normal people.’ If we have the merits, we should be able to do our jobs, regardless of what we have or don’t have on our bodies.”

The World Sikh Organization will be representing and advocating for Amrit, who formerly served as the non-profit’s vice president in Quebec, in the legal challenges against Bill 21. According to Guntaas Kaur, B.C.’s vice president of WSO, her organization has been in contact with representatives from Vancouver about taking a stance against the law. 

“I’m very hopeful that Vancouver will be the next city [condemning this bill], considering that there’s a huge diverse population here and Vancouver celebrates multiculturalism,” says Guntaas, who also wears a turban. 

Vancouver is also no stranger to initiating large calls to action, and in April became the first Canadian city to declare a climate emergency. Another one of the 107 motions passed by the city council in its first year addressed how to dispose of dog “doo-doo” in keeping with zero-waste goals. By doubling the motions put forward by Vancouver’s last council, Kennedy’s government is showing they’re reading to tackle climate issues on both a large and small scale. 

“We’re using this to pressure other levels of government to do the same and that’s because our citizens demanded it,” Kennedy explains. “I think we play a very important role and we have in the past in the larger political discussion.”

The mayor says he thinks Vancouver should speak out against Bill 21 to try to bring people together, rather than having outsiders and insiders in Canadian society. But he failed to explain the missing link between the talking and walking, so to speak. The missing Vancouver voice from the national conversation is obvious. 

“I cannot remember a recent issue that has been striking a blow with this much impact at the heart of what it means to be Canadian, at least for most of the country, quite the same way,” says Guntaas.