MONTREAL — The Quebec government is calling for the resignation of the federal government's special representative to combat Islamophobia over a 2019 opinion piece in an Ottawa newspaper in which she suggested Quebecers are influenced by anti-Muslim attitudes.
Ottawa must fire Amira Elghawaby immediately if she chooses not to resign, Jean-François Roberge, Quebec's minister responsible for relations with Canada and for state secularism, said in a statement Monday. Roberge said the province had initially demanded an apology from her, which he said did not happen. Now, he said, she has to go.
"All she did was try to justify her abhorrent remarks," Roberge said about Elghawaby, who was nominated to the role less than one week ago by the prime minister. "That is not acceptable. She must resign, and if she does not, the government must remove her immediately."
Elghawaby co-wrote a 2019 opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen criticizing Quebec's Bill 21, which bans certain government employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.
She and co-writer Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the "the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported (Bill 21)."
The legislation, the authors wrote, led to an increase in racist incidents against Muslim women in Quebec and "bolsters those who hate and entrenches second-class citizenship, now state-sanctioned." Elghawaby and Farber accused Quebec Premier François Legault of denying the existence of Islamophobia despite the January 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque that left six worshippers dead.
In response to the criticism, Elghawaby tweeted on Friday, "I don’t believe that Quebecers are Islamophobic, my past comments were in reference to a poll on Bill 21. I will work with partners from all provinces and regions to make sure we address racism head on."
While that tweet wasn't good enough for the Quebec government, it was for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Asked by reporters Monday whether Elghawaby's clarification satisfied him, the prime minister said, "Yes, it satisfies me."
"Obviously she thought carefully over many years about the impacts that various pieces of legislation and various political positions have had on the community, and her job now is to make sure that she helping government and helping everyone move forward," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
Earlier on Monday, Quebec deputy premier Geneviève Guilbault said that Elghawaby's comments were "inappropriate" and won't help bring people together.
Guilbault attended an event Sunday commemorating the sixth anniversary of the mosque attack. That ceremony, she said, which was attended by people from different backgrounds to show solidarity with families of victims, demonstrated what Quebecers are really like.
"This is how Quebecers are: we are open, we are welcoming, and we must not extrapolate isolated acts, acts of terror, morbid acts, like the one that was committed on Jan. 29, 2017; we must not extrapolate that to the entire population of Quebec," she told reporters.
Suggesting that Quebecers are "systemically racist" or closed off to religious people or those from elsewhere is unacceptable, Guilbault added.
"It's false, it's false, it's false," Guilbault told reporters. "Quebecers are welcoming, are fraternal, and to claim the contrary, especially while occupying an official position with a salary presumably paid by public funds, I find that a slippery slope."
Elghawaby did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Elghawaby had clarified her remarks and that Islamophobia is a problem across Canada that has led to deaths in the country. He suggested that the criticism of Elghawaby was also partly based on her race and gender.
"I think for any woman seeing this, they'll look at this and see it's really familiar. The piling on of a woman, in particular a racialized woman, is really troubling in general and in this case it seems to be problematic," he told reporters in Ottawa.
The ceremony at the Quebec City mosque Sunday was the first time the commemoration was held in the same room where the attack occurred. It was also the first anniversary since the attack that Legault did not attend. Guilbault said the premier had a family obligation.
Trudeau attended the event, as did Elghawaby.
Mohamed Labidi, president of the mosque where the 2017 attack occurred, gave a speech during the ceremony in which he praised the appointment of Elghawaby and called on the Quebec government to take concrete actions to combat Islamophobia.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.
— With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press