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Brian Pallister of Manitoba has spoken out strongly and consistently against Bill 21.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

David McLaughlin is a former provincial deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs, federal Conservative chief of staff, and was campaign manager for the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party in 2016 and 2019.

As Canada’s premiers gather Monday in Toronto, there will be no shortage of topics to discuss. But one topic, Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by designated public-sector workers such as teachers and police, has been banned from the formal agenda.

Based on the principle of separation of church and state, Bill 21 would prohibit a person from wearing a crucifix necklace or a headscarf on the job.

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Only one premier, Brian Pallister of Manitoba, has spoken out strongly and consistently against Bill 21. He introduced a motion in the legislature, passed unanimously, affirming the opposition of all MLAs to “any law that seeks to unjustifiably limit the religious freedoms of citizens, including passing a law that unjustifiably denies an individual’s right to wear religious clothing or symbols of one’s choice.”

Last week, that opposition gained national notoriety with the placement of pointed French language ads in Quebec daily newspapers by Manitoba citing “21 reasons to feel at home in Manitoba,” featuring a photo of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. Quebec Premier François Legault responded tartly, suggesting Mr. Pallister spend the ad money on French-language services and, by the way, keep a Winnipeg Jets hockey player in Manitoba, before you start asking Quebeckers to move there.

Premier Pallister was unrepentant. “If you are not willing to defend others’ rights and freedoms, do not expect them to defend yours.” he stated in the legislature. “Something ugly and unjust is happening right now in Quebec.”

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premiers have had a mixed history when it comes to Charter rights and Quebec. Sterling Lyon was a long holdout against a Charter of Rights and Freedoms during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1980s, citing the supremacy of legislatures. Gary Filmon was a public skeptic of recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society” throughout the Meech Lake negotiations of the late 1980s.

Mr. Pallister’s opposition is grounded in neither of these shibboleths. It is an unapologetic defence of individual rights and freedoms and how they reinforce Canadian unity. It springs from a unique Prairie conservatism that combines libertarian individualism with progressive societal values of community. Turns out, he is one of the few – maybe only – practising proponents of this active progressive conservatism in the Canadian conservative movement.

Neither federal Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, nor Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, has expressed anything close to Mr. Pallister’s level of criticism. Mr. Scheer was hunting seats in Quebec in the federal election and Mr. Kenney hopes to get a pipeline through the province. Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford hastened to assure Premier Legault that a unanimous motion in the Ontario Legislature criticizing Bill 21 sprung from the opposition side and not his government.

Quebec’s political clout in the federation is, well, distinct. Its outsized influence has shaped Canada from Confederation. The key to a majority government only works in the Quebec door.

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But premiers in the rest of Canada don’t have to win votes in Quebec. The cavilling of federal politicians is understandable if unsightly; but premiers?

They either quietly agree with Mr. Legault or they silently concur with his right to act as he is doing. Despite its billing as an instrument “to strengthen the Canadian federation,” the Council of the Federation has morphed into a forum where internal differences are muted in favour of securing consensus demands upon the federal government.

Bill 21 falls squarely into this category. It is a distraction to presenting a united front to Ottawa. More to the point: Why alienate Quebec when your own provincial alienation demands attention?

Such is politics but it also illustrates an emerging provincial force in the federation: autonomy. “Going it alone” through a more muscular exercising of provincial powers and authorities, as Alberta and Saskatchewan are currently contemplating, is the sister covenant to “distinct society.” Chastising Quebec on Bill 21 would contradict the autonomous impulse every province and premier cherishes to justify its unique circumstances now or in the future.

But the premiers’ collective silence on Bill 21 reflects something much more uncomfortable to Mr. Pallister: a potential erosion of rights requiring the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by Quebec to allow it to proceed and protect it from legal challenge.

But that too is no longer taboo. New Brunswick is invoking it on a provaccination bill and Ontario threatened to use it for legislation to upend Toronto City Council elections and cut the size of council by half. The notwithstanding clause is proving the autonomists’ tool of choice.

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Standing alone has never been a barrier to Mr. Pallister’s exercise of his conception of Canadian unity and protection of rights and freedoms. He sees Bill 21 as a threat to both. It is as much a national unity issue as Western alienation and an overreaching federal government.

With federal leaders, premiers and Conservatives mostly silent and provincial autonomy demands growing, Manitobans and Canadians can expect to hear more from this premier, not less.

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