Standing on guard against Quebec’s unconstitutional Bill 21

By Mustafa Farooq
Edmonton Journal | June 8, 2019

I’m ready to admit something: I always tear up when I hear the Canadian national anthem.

I think my emotional response to the anthem began at a young age, when, as I stood in Grade 3 assembly to sing the anthem, I saw my mother in the crowd of parents. She stood tall as she always had, in a long jacket and wearing a white hijab, standing out in a crowd of, shall we say, less-than-racially-diverse parents in Sherwood Park. As the anthem welled up, “God keep our land/glorious and free!” I saw my mother wipe the tears away from her eyes.

Cartography is a strange science. Yet the map of our journey to Canada in many ways mirrors a kind of collective experience, where as Tennyson brilliantly noted, we are a part of all that we have met.

During summers, when we would leave school and fly to Pakistan to visit our relatives on the other side of the ocean, there was always one question that we would be asked. It was always as predictable as it was impossible to answer, “What do you like more, Pakistan or Canada?”

In other words — where do we, as Canadian Muslims, as children of a diaspora, where do we belong?

How could I answer them as a child? Canada was where I was born, where I first saw the aurora borealis, where my third-grade teacher told all of the other students about fasting in Ramadan so that I would feel included, where my beautiful hometown mosque was. It was my future; it was my past.

That answer has never changed, but it has become more complicated.

For my love for the prairie sky and the Rocky Mountains doesn’t change Canada’s past. It doesn’t change a complicated history that involved residential schooling and settler colonialism. It doesn’t change the head tax or the Komagata Maru. It doesn’t change the problems with nationalist fervour. It doesn’t change the events that led to the Quebec City mosque shooting, where Alexandre Bissonnette shot our brothers and sisters.

But despite that, I can’t help but tear up when I hear the opening swell of the anthem, the swirl of emotions, the feeling of belonging, the promise of a multicultural paradise. Evasive though that might be, contradictory though that might be, impossible though that might be, the promise of a land where we could all learn to be just with each other, to be kind to each other, is in my heart every time the anthem comes on.

I think that’s why proposed legislation in Quebec, Bill 21, makes me so profoundly sad. Bill 21, of course, is the law being proposed in Quebec that would ban many Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs from becoming teachers, police officers, judges and being involved in other public-sector positions. In other words, if you are Sikh Canadian and choose to wear a turban, as is your constitutionally protected right in Quebec, you wouldn’t be allowed to become the president of the National Assembly. And that’s why the Quebec government is invoking the notwithstanding clause, that rarely used provision to essentially say your constitutional rights are irrelevant.

The hearings mean that my mother — a junior figure skating champion, a Montessori teacher, one of the most ethical human beings I have ever met — wouldn’t be allowed to become a teacher, simply because she wears the hijab.

Now, when I hear the anthem, and remember my mother’s tears, that means something far different.

It means that we have forgotten what has made this country strong and free. When laws are passed that suspend parts of the constitution to prevent the Jewish community from practising their faith, for instance, something terribly wrong has happened to us.

But it also means that I, and millions of other Canadians and Quebecers, will never stop standing on guard. It means that for the sake of my mother, for the sake of Sikh sisters and my Jewish brothers, we will never stop working to fulfil the promise of Canada.

Now, when I hear the last line, “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee” the tear that runs down my cheek isn’t a tear of nostalgia or pride or patriotism.

It’s a promise.

Mustafa Farooq is a lawyer and the Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.