Youth fight back against governments that limit their choices

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday April 7, 2019. 

Last week, young people across the country sent powerful messages to Canadian federal and provincial politicians: We have you on watch, and we will not be dismissed.

We saw 338 young women take their seats in the House of Commons on Wednesday and make forward thinking statements as a part of the Equal Voice Daughters of the Vote initiative. They talked about action on climate change, they spoke of intersectional feminism and Indigenous rights, and they boldly and brilliantly challenged the status quo of Canadian political discourse.

On Thursday we saw thousands of students across Ontario walk out to protest proposed education cuts. Premier Doug Ford made the mistake of underestimating the influence and autonomy of these young people with flippant remarks aimed to minimize their efforts.

The resistance to policy changes and the political status quo alike — like many throughout history — will be led by young people who choose to see through partisan talking points and demand that government work for them.

These young people are a tidal wave intent on shaping the direction of our country. They are watching, they are activating and organizing, and they are taking notes for how they will do politics differently.

They give me hope.

And this is a moment in Canadian history when hope for our political systems is much needed.

In Quebec, the Legislative Assembly is debating what is, in the words of Montreal philosopher Charles Taylor, “An unneeded answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The Quebec government has tabled Bill 21, aiming to ban public sector employees who are deemed to serve in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. This would apply to teachers, police officers, prison guards and judges who wear head coverings such as hijabs or turbans.

It is, simply put, an egregious limit on the rights of Canadians to practice their faith. Regardless of the intention of the bill, it disproportionately negatively impacts hijab wearing Muslim women who work, or hope to work, in public service roles.

Proponents of the bill argue that matters of religion should be private. So should be a teacher’s decision each morning to cover herself the way she chooses. There are many in favour of the bill who do not think it goes far enough, believing it should apply to those in positions of political leadership as well.

Take a moment to think about the consequences of that.

Premier François Legault has asked for calm and respect as his government works to limit debate in an effort to expedite the bill, which goes as far as invoking the notwithstanding clause to override potential federal blocking. He considers Bill 21 to be a widely supported and reasonable compromise, but there are some issues for which a compromise should not be reached.

History has taught us that even majority support for political direction does not always make it right.

This isn’t about a few people being upset. It’s about thousands of Canadians, mostly girls and women, being disenfranchised and discriminated against by their government. These are unreasonable restrictions on the rights of one group in an effort to appease another.

While the bill is likely to pass, resistance is mounting. Municipalities and school boards across Quebec are uniting in opposition, some going as far to suggest they will not enforce it. Legal professionals are also sternly warning against the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause.

In the words of John Lewis, “We have to continue to fight. And sometimes you have to fight some of the old battles over and over again for the next generation, for generations yet unborn. You, too, can make a contribution, and you must.”

A woman’s professional qualifications have nothing to do with how she chooses to cover herself, regardless of her reason. We need teachers who can help young people reach their full potential and inspire a belief that their efforts can change their circumstances. We need good police officers and guards. We need fair and wise judges.

The Canada we build should be one of potential without limits. Our governments should be endeavouring to remove barriers, not moving to create new ones.

Every girl in Canada, hijab wearing or otherwise, should be empowered to lead.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht