Liberal MP Affirms Friendship with Jewish Community

Nov. 12, 2020 

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—One year after he was elected, Montreal-area Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi welcomed the opportunity to finally put to rest Conservative allegations that he is antisemitic and a proponent of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Sameer Zuberi
Photo credit: Bernard Thibodeau

“That’s completely false and wrong; it’s inconsistent with who I am and my record,” Zuberi told a videoconference hosted by Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Nov. 3. “…The Conservative attack is a red herring. If it were actually true, I would not be doing what I am doing now.”

On the eve of the contested Liberal nomination meeting in the Pierrefonds-Dollard riding in September 2019, the Conservative Party issued a press release describing Zuberi as having an “antisemitic past” and “promoted conspiracy theories” about 9/11.

The release also denounced Zuberi, who is Muslim, as a “radical activist” when he was a student leader at Concordia University in the early 2000s.

Zuberi, 41, who won the nomination over five other contenders, denied the allegations at the time, but went further in explaining why they were inaccurate and hurtful in response to a question during the virtual Temple event.

First, he emphasized that he comes from a mixed background. His father emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s and his mother is a third-generation Canadian from Brockville, Ont.

An aunt converted to Judaism, and she, his uncle and their children – Zuberi’s cousins – observe kashruth and Shabbat. “I participated in that from a young age. My parents always reminded me that we have Christians and Jews in our family. Since the cradle, that has always been my world view and why I have worked so hard to create understanding among communities,” he said.

Zuberi, who was active in the Canadian Muslim Forum and worked as the diversity and engagement officer in McGill University’s faculty of medicine before running in the October 2019 federal election, said he has been devoted to bridge-building throughout his life.

Well before he considered entering politics, Zuberi said he attended a Shalom Hartman Institute program in Jerusalem to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience. There, he “learned from rabbis, thought leaders and civil society in an unvarnished way.”

He said he “cares deeply for the Jewish community and respects the Jews of Canada and the world.”

Addressing the specific Conservative charges, which were never retracted, Zuberi said to characterize him as a “9/11 truther could not be further from the truth. I have constantly denounced terrorism and Osama bin Laden…I am on the record dozens of times.”

The Conservatives reproduced an exchange on Zuberi’s Facebook page from May 3, 2011, just after bin Laden was assassinated, to back up their allegation. Zuberi responded to a comment posted that whether bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 was still “a matter of public debate,” but cautioned the commenter against subscribing to theories that confirmed their views.

Zuberi points out that on that day, he had a letter published in the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette in which he wrote that “the death of Osama bin Laden is a welcome event.” The thrust of the letter was that, 10 years after 9/11, “it was time to turn a new page and move on to something else,” he explained.

As for the accusation that as a Concordia Student Union vice-president, he supported the suspension of the Jewish student club Hillel in late 2002 because it was accused of disseminating Israel Defense Forces recruitment materials, Zuberi said that, “at that time, I am on the record that Hillel should not be suspended. I dug up that statement and shared it publicly.”

The Temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow’s association with Zuberi goes back to before he entered federal politics. She said they worked together on interfaith and intercultural projects, and collaborated during the fight against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. He has taken part in the Temple’s Muslim Awareness Week and other programming, she said.

“Sameer has consistently been a friend of our community,” she said.

Letter to the Editor: Bill 21 Mocks Canada’s Democracy

November 9, 2020

Dear Editor:

Re: “Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court, Nov. 4, 2020”

Quebec’s trouble with Bill 21—the “Secularism Law”—provides an ample demonstration about why ‘Notwithstanding’ clauses are overtly dangerous to parliamentary democracies. For one thing, the clauses ultimately cater to selfish provincial Premiers looking to steamroll unpopular legislation for purely selfish motives in contravention of human and Charter rights. Consider Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s justification for the law: it prevents feuding over “reasonable accommodation practices” in the public arena. Perhaps the apparent discomfort over religious accommodations has to do with the fact that Quebec, a largely Roman Catholic Christian society, is uncomfortable with providing accommodation for neighboring religions. If this is true, it bears stating that the Church hosts many races, cultures, and ethnicities, laity and ordained.

Quebeckers remember the power the Church once held in previous centuries. But the atheistic practices of Mr. Legault and his government should not be used to silence religious expression in the public arena, hence the Constitutional quandaries. The unpopular notwithstanding clauses prove that democracy, even in Canada, is a relative term.

Sincerely,
Christopher-Michael Mansour
Barrie, ON 

Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court

Nov. 4, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The long awaited court challenge to Quebec’s controversial secularism law got underway in Montreal’s Palais de Justice Nov. 2 with a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab testifying that her plans to teach in the public system have been dashed, making her feel excluded and inferior.

Bill 21, which became law in June 2019, prohibits public employees deemed to represent state authority from displaying religious symbols while on the job. These include police officers, judges, Crown prosecutors and other government lawyers, prison guards and – most widely questioned – teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, the first witness at the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, had just graduated from the University of Montreal and was hoping to begin her career in a public school when the legislation came into effect. She is now teaching in the private sector, which is not subject to the law. That includes Jewish day schools.

The trial, held in Quebec Superior Court, combines four separate lawsuits against Bill 21, officially entitled “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.”

It was high on the agenda of the Coalition Avenir Québec which was elected with a solid majority in October 2018. The new government quickly shepherded it through the legislative process, despite sustained outcry from minority and human rights groups, legal experts, and the opposition Liberal Party.

Premier Francois Legault described the bill as a “moderate” resolution of the acrimonious debate over “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the public sphere. Polls have shown that a majority of Quebecers agree with him.

All four lawsuits seek the law’s annulment on constitutional grounds but will offer differing legal arguments on why it violates fundamental rights. These have to be complex because the law includes the constitutional notwithstanding clause, which allows the government to override guarantees of religious liberty and equality, including between men and women, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

All of the complainants charge that the law is discriminatory against those whose religious belief requires them to wear such symbols. In practical terms, the greatest impact is on Muslim women.

The law does not specifically name what constitutes a religious symbol but the minister responsible has said it should be commonly understood to mean headwear or jewelry. The law applies to all religions, not only minorities.

Public employees who wore such symbols before the law was adopted are “grandfathered,” but only as long as they stay in the same job description.

Hak is the lead plaintiff for the first lawsuit, launched by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). The others were filed by the English Montreal School Board; the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers’ union; and three teachers – two Muslim, one Roman Catholic who wear religious symbols – who are backed by an interfaith and intercultural coalition.

Gregory Bordan, lawyer for the three teachers and an observant Jew, will argue that the relevant rights were entrenched long before the 1982 Canadian constitution, back even to Confederation in 1867.

Whatever the decision, experts believe it will be appealed and, eventually, taken to the Supreme Court of Canada – a process that could take years.

Last year, a Superior Court judge rejected a request by the Muslim council and CCLU for an injunction against parts of the law with the most direct affect on individuals until their case goes to trial. That decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal in December.

In the current trial, the court did grant intervener status to a pro-secularist group that believes the law does not go far enough.

In the debate before the federal election last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa might intervene in the court challenge, but that has not happened.

During public hearings in the spring of 2019, the Lord Reading Law Society vigorously opposed the bill saying it would create a “state religion” that imposes neutrality and deprive individuals of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

This association of Jewish lawyers believes the bill contravenes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada is a party.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec termed the bill “a disproportionate attack” on basic rights, including equality of opportunity for employment, and urged that, at the minimum, teachers not be subject to it.

It also found the bill’s wording ambiguous, leaving too much discretion in the hands of administrators of public institutions in how it is applied.

B’nai Brith Canada urged the entire law be scrapped, saying it “contributes to the divisions that already exist in Quebec society” and “advocates a militant form of laicity to the detriment of religious individuals and communities that cannot be justified.”

The organization feared that hateful acts against minorities would increase.