MONTREAL — Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) Leader François Legault says provincial employees who “personify state authority” should not wear clothing or symbols of a religious nature while on the job.
Among these employees, the leader of Quebec’s third party includes judges, police and other law enforcement officers, as well as teachers and principals in public schools.
On Aug. 26, Legault unveiled what he described as his party’s “responsible and balanced approach” to the accommodation of religion in the public sphere.
“In light of the important powers and responsibilities entrusted to these individuals, it is necessary to ensure that, in reality and in the eyes of the population, they exercise their functions in all neutrality and credibility,” he said.
With 18 seats in the National Assembly, the CAQ could hold the votes the minority Parti Québécois (PQ) government needs to pass the anticipated Charter of Quebec Values this fall, if the official opposition Liberals vote against it.
“We believe [our proposal] respects the interests and aspirations of all Quebecers,” Legault said at a press conference at the legislature. “We believe that it contains all the necessary elements required to rally a large majority of Quebecers who aspire to live together, while insuring the vitality of the majority’s culture and heritage, as well as the assets of an open and diverse society in North America.”
He said a ban on religious headwear or jewelry among judges and the police is in line with the recommendations made by the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation in 2008.
The PQ government’s expected plan to prohibit religious wear among all public and para-public employees, including civil servants and doctors and other public health-care staff, is “radical” and goes too far, Legault said.
The CAQ is adding educators to the list “in light of the authority they command vis-à-vis students obliged to attend school.” Legault was education minister in the PQ government of former premier Lucien Bouchard.
“For us, teachers, as well as principals, in elementary and secondary schools, also meet this criterion [of representing the authority of the state].”
The party is in favour of a charter of secularism in order to “clarify each person’s rights and obligations” and to “establish clear guidelines that have been lacking in recent years,” he said.
Legault urged the government to quickly table a bill on the issue. “We’ve debated enough in Quebec. It’s time to take action. The National Assembly will be able to hold consultations when it considers the bill.”
Legault also affirmed that any services provided by the state should be given and received with faces uncovered “for identification and security purposes.”
Legault stated that the equality of men and women, another cornerstone of the planned charter, “must always guide the courts in cases of religious accommodation requests.”
At present, gender equality and the freedom of religion are on a par in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, he noted, which can put them in conflict.
“For the CAQ, the inalienable principle of equality between men and women must at all times be respected when a religious accommodation is permitted.”
The CAQ is in favour of keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly or other Christian symbols, such as Christmas decorations, in such public places as city halls. Legault said they represent Quebec’s “religious and cultural heritage” and are not incompatible with guaranteeing the state’s neutrality.
Meanwhile, Premier Pauline Marois defended the charter of Quebec values, which her government plans to introduce in the fall, saying it will prove to be a “unifying” force among Quebecers, similar to Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, adopted in 1977.
The government has not yet officially released any details on the anticipated legislation, but is expected to put forward an outline of its principles later this month, before introducing legislation.
Leaders of Federation CJA and its advocacy arm, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, met with Legault on Aug. 23 to express the Jewish community’s criticism of the charter, as it’s been described in media leaks.
Federation president David Cape said that the organizations “reiterated our strong opposition to any charter that would seek to limit the Jewish community, or any other religious communities, from exercising their rights to freedom of religion.”
They also expressed their concern about re-opening a debate on religious accommodation, an acrimonious issue that dominated the news in Quebec from 2006 to 2008 and beyond. Nevertheless, the Jewish leaders are ready to stand their ground.
“While the debate that is likely to unfold in the coming months will be upsetting, we believe that our community should engage politicians and society in a principled debate,” Cape said in an e-mailed message to the community.
He noted that polls in the last few days show that Quebecers are divided on the accommodation issue, and that they are more concerned with the economy, the infrastructure, education and other “bread-and-butter” issues.
A Léger Marketing poll of 1,000 people released on Aug. 26 found 57 per cent thought banning religious symbols in the public sector is a good idea, including 65 per cent of francophones.
On Aug. 27, Montreal city council unanimously adopted a motion put forward by Lionel Perez, interim mayor of the Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough, favouring an “inclusive secularism in order to build a public space in the image of Montreal and Quebec in the 21st century.”
The motion’s preamble states that any values charter should respect cultural diversity and the equality of all, and not “create two classes of citizens.”
While state neutrality is essential to democracy, it reads, that principle should be interpreted as an assurance that citizens have freedom of conscience and religion and are guaranteed that the state will not “impose any spiritual, political or religious option” on them.
Perez, an Orthodox Jew, earlier met with Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, the lead cabinet minister on the charter file, to express his concerns.
The two perceived leading contenders for the Montreal mayoralty – Denis Coderre and Marcel Côté – agreed during a debate that civil servants at city hall should be allowed to wear religious attire, although they drew the line at full-face coverings.
Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron, also running for mayor in November, did not comment on the matter.
The federal Liberal spokesperson for immigration and multiculturalism, Toronto area MP John McCallum, slammed Quebec’s proposed ban on religious wear by public employees.
“It is astonishing that such a proposal to drastically curtail religious and individual rights could emerge in Canada in 2013. It is also astonishing that federal political leaders, other than [Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau, notably [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper and [NDP Leader] Thomas Mulcair, have greeted this outrage with a cowardly silence,” McCallum said in an Aug. 26 statement.
Ontario’s minister of citizenship and immigration, Michael Croteau, said the week before his Liberal government would oppose any legislation in that province prohibiting or restricting the freedoms of expression and religion in public places.
“Ontario’s diversity… is a model to the world – where we celebrate and respect each other’s differences,” he said.