NDP candidates face off during French-language debate in Montreal
Niki Ashton, second from right, speaks with Guy Caron, left, as Charlie Angus and Peter Julian look on during the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race, in Ottawa on Sunday, March 12, 2017. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, August 27, 2017 2:20PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, August 27, 2017 6:33PM EDT
MONTREAL -- The four NDP leadership hopefuls treaded carefully on Sunday when they were asked to weigh in on Quebec's ongoing discussion over religion and identity during a French-language debate in Montreal.
Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Quebec MP Guy Caron and Ontario MP Charlie Angus and Ontario legislature member Jagmeet Singh were asked about the Quebec government's proposed legislation that sets guidelines for accommodating religious requests.
The bill attempts to enshrine into law the policy that all people giving or receiving a service from the state must do so with their face uncovered.
Caron chose to tackle the issue in his opening statement, saying it was important to fight racism and Islamophobia but also to support Quebec's right to make its own decisions on the issue.
"Rejecting secularism because we believe it's just racism is fundamentally misunderstanding Quebec," he told a packed room at Montreal's Club Soda.
Singh, who has said he is against the bill, said he doesn't believe the state should be able to dictate what people wear, but added he believes the province has laws in place to ensure rights are protected.
In his opening statement, he also appeared to acknowledge critics' fears that Quebec voters will reject him due to his own visible symbols of faith.
"I'm not here to convince you to accept my turban, nor my beard," said Singh, who is Sikh. "What I want to convince you is that I'm someone who shares the same values as you."
Ashton and Angus also disagreed with the idea that the state should be able to dictate what a person wears but refrained from criticizing the Quebec government.
"It's absolutely essential that we stand up for humans rights and the people's freedom. It's also important we respect Quebec," Ashton said.
Angus expressed a similar sentiment, saying it was important to understand's Quebec's fight for the separation of church and state during the quiet revolution of the 1960s.
"I'm confident that the conversation in Quebec will result in a balance between the rights of individuals and the need to maintain the secularism of society," he told reporters following the debate, while declining to state exactly where the line should be drawn.
The question of religion and identity was a thorny issue for the NDP in the last federal election, and one that may have contributed to the party's slide in a province that had previously helped vault it to official Opposition status.
Thomas Mulcair's insistence that women should have a right to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies is believed by some to have cost the party crucial support.
The NDP currently holds 16 seats in Quebec -- well below the 59 it claimed in its historic breakthrough in the province in 2011 under Jack Layton's leadership.
Early questions focused on the wave of asylum seekers crossing from the United States, the government role in supporting the province's aerospace industry, and Premier Philippe Couillard's plan to restart cross-country discussions on Quebec's role in Canada.
All four candidates criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for rejecting any possibility of re-opening the constitution, with Caron and Singh accusing him of "slamming the door" on the province.
All of the candidates expressed themselves fluently in French, with Singh and Angus occasionally having to search for words.
Caron is the race's only francophone and the only candidate from Quebec.
Members of the NDP will vote for the successor to outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair on Sept. 18.