Quebec voters challenge Justin Trudeau over his stance on Bill 21
ST-TITE, Que. -- Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's preference for a day of shaking hands and light conversations on the campaign trail Saturday didn't materialize, as some Quebec residents pushed him to discuss his stance on the province's controversial secularism law.
Trudeau began his day of whistle stops in rural Quebec by dropping into a restaurant in Mascouche, a riding held by the Bloc Quebecois, with his daughter Ella-Grace to shake hands with francophone voters.
But as he made his way around the tables at Fruit Oeufolie Restaurant, introducing himself and posing for photos, several locals bent Trudeau's ear on Quebec's Bill 21 -- a new law that bars public servants in positions of authority from wearing any religious symbols.
A few people told Trudeau they disagreed with his position on the bill, including Sylvain Chartier who said in French that he didn't feel Trudeau was standing up for Quebecers.
"I'm very proud to be a Quebecer, I'm very proud to be a Canadian", Trudeau replied in French.
"Well, show it," Chartier countered.
On Friday, Trudeau told reporters he opposes the law because he does not believe a free society should be "limiting fundamental rights or allowing discrimination to happen," but added that, for now at least, a Liberal government would not get involved in a legal challenge to the legislation because it wouldn't be productive.
Monique Gagne did not confront Trudeau with her views, but in an interview she questioned why the Liberal leader would not provide more clarity on what could trigger federal intervention.
"I don't like him saying 'for now', 'we'll see' or that he will study the question," Gagne said in French. She believes Quebec voters have a right to know what Trudeau's plans are on the secularism law before the election.
"As a citizen, I would like to hear these answers before and not after ... then, we'll see if Trudeau really is a Quebecer -- not just from birth, but also in the way he thinks, in his decisions."
Gagne added that she plans to vote Bloc Quebecois.
Clemence Massicotte from the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne said she is among those who polls suggest are part of a majority of Quebec residents that support Bill 21.
"We don't want veils in our schools anymore," she said in French. "If they want to wear it, they can wear it at home, to go to the grocery store, in the street. We're not against that."
Jacques Corbeil had an extended conversation with Trudeau on Bill 21 when the Liberal leader crouched down at his table to greet him.
Afterward, he said he believes Trudeau is walking a fine line in speaking out against the secularism law while also trying to let Quebecers determine for themselves how to deal with it.
"I think I'll vote for him anyway," Corbeil added. "I recognize it's an extremely difficult issue to deal with."
Later, at a Tim Hortons in Saint-Felix-de-Valois, inside a riding held by New Democrat Ruth Ellen Brosseau, Trudeau got a vote of confidence when local resident Claude Labbe told him to stand his ground and "not give up" on Bill 21.
Quebec's 78 seats are a key battleground area of the country being eyed by all four parties in contention for seats in the Oct. 21 vote. The Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens, and even Maxime Bernier's upstart People's Party of Canada, are expected to focus time and resources to canvass for votes in La Belle Province over the next five weeks.
If Trudeau's experiences Saturday are any indication, the secularism law could become a key topic raised by voters on the doorsteps.
Trudeau cabinet minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he's not concerned his leader's polarizing stance on Bill 21 could hurt his re-election chances.
"We respect the National Assembly of Quebec ... I think people understand that," he said.
"At the same time, Quebecers know that we've always stood for the Charter of Rights (and Freedoms) and I always remind Quebecers, know that the charter has served us very well over time as francophones and in other matters."
Champagne joined Trudeau for the last part of the Liberal leader's campaign day in Quebec, greeting revellers at the popular western festival in St-Tite, in Champagne's riding that the Liberals took in 2015.
Trudeau proved a major attraction at the event. Large crowds surrounded him as he walked down a street flanked by western-themed food and merchant booths. Stetson-topped men and women, many of them clutching cans of beer, followed Trudeau through the festival, many of them for photos that Trudeau cheerfully obliged.
-- With files from Catherine Levesque