MONTREAL (JTA) – The Jewish mayor of a Montreal suburb compared a proposed bill that would bar religious symbols on some public workers to “ethnic cleansing.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked William Steinberg, mayor since 2005 of the affluent town of Hampstead in Montreal’s west end, to apologize for the remark.
“We shouldn’t use words like that,” Trudeau, who opposes the bill, told reporters in Ottawa last Friday. “We don’t need to go to extremes.”
Steinberg instead defended using the term, saying he meant “ethnic cleansing” only in a “non-violent” sense.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith and human rights groups have denounced the proposed law as discriminatory and contrary to Canadian human rights charters, but polls consistently show most Quebecers supporting it by a large majority.
Critics say the real targets of the law are women in hijabs, but supporters say the law is in line with Quebec’s long-standing goal of making the state religiously neutral and more secular. It will bar public school teachers, judges, police officers and others from wearing kippahs, turbans, or hijabs at work. Quebec premier François Legault, head of the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec government behind Bill 21, wants to pass it before the legislature goes on holiday in June.
Steinberg’s town, with a population of about 8,000, is more than 70 per cent Jewish and less than two per cent Muslim. To avoid stirring more controversy, he said he would not attend an April 14 rally in the neighbouring municipality of Côte St. Luc protesting the bill.