«What I want to do is rally the most Quebecers possible.»
QUEBEC — On the eve of tabling of a bill on secularism, Premier François Legault has issued an appeal for calm and respectful debate in the coming weeks.
“My objective with the bill on laicity is to achieve consensus,” Legault said Wednesday on his way into Question Period. “You will see tomorrow. I accepted to make certain compromises. What I want to do is rally the most Quebecers possible.
“I already told my MNAs and ministers that we have to maintain a respectful tone with our adversaries. I don’t want things to skid out of control, for people to be aggressive or arrogant.
“We need to be the least divisive possible.”
Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government Wednesday gave formal notice of its intention to table the bill Thursday in the National Assembly. The bill will be called “An act respecting the laicity of the state.”
To be handled by the minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the bill will be immediately be referred to a committee of the legislature for study.
The committee will likely invite particular groups to hearings but is unlikely to open the process completely, as did the old Parti Québécois government when it tabled its ill-fated Charter of Values, which dealt with the same theme.
The government would like to avoid the kind of circus atmosphere the PQ experienced, where groups with many different agendas took advantage of the forum. At times the forum drifted into the waters of intolerance.
While the previous Liberal government tabled its own version of bill, stating Quebec is a secular state (Bill 62), the CAQ’s new bill will go much farther, to and include a ban on public servants in positions of authority from wearing such religious symbols as the Muslim hijab or Jewish kippah.
The exact scope of the ban remains to be confirmed. The CAQ has said the list would include judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and elementary and high-school teachers.
Radio-Canada reported Tuesday that the list would be expanded to include school principals and anyone carrying a weapon, which would mean wildlife officers, bodyguards and court constables.
The government is also expected to unearth a little-known clause of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report and specify the speaker and deputy speakers of the legislature also cannot wear symbols. Individual MNAs would not be affected.
But the future of the crucifix — which has been hanging over the speaker’s chair since Maurice Duplessis put it there 83 years ago — is unknown. Last week, Legault opened the door to possibly moving it to a less conspicuous location, following the lead of the city of Montreal.
Legault Wednesday refused to clarify what the the plan is for the crucifix, urging reporters to “be patient” until Thursday.
He also refused to say whether the bill will contain a grandfather clause that would recognize existing public employees’ rights to wear symbols.
But it is expected, which explains Legault’s statement that the government has made compromises. Such a clause was not part of the CAQ’s election platform but it is one of the conditions the opposition Parti Québécois set out as a condition for its support for the bill.
The PQ knows Legault needs its support to improve the optics of his decision to go down the path of a ban. If you add the 17-per-cent support the PQ got in the last election to the CAQ’s 37 per cent, Legault will be able to argue it has the support of more than half of the population.
Public opinion polls show widespread support for the CAQ’s ban but the level drops off when it comes to firing employees who refuse to follow the rules.
On Tuesday, the PQ’s interim leader, Pascal Bérubé, said he was happy to see Jolin-Barrette add school principals to his list, but held off, saying his party will support the bill.
“Our cooperation (in this matter) is a given but not our approval,” Bérubé said.
The Liberal opposition is not expected to support the bill because it fundamentally opposes restrictions on symbols — a position the party renewed this year.
But Québec solidaire’s support is not in the bag. On Tuesday, Laurier-Dorion QS MNA Andrés Fontecilla repeated QS only supports the original Bouchard-Taylor formula when it comes to a ban — only judges, police officers, prosecutors and prison guards.
QS is staunchly opposed to extending the ban to teachers, he said.
“We live in a society where people come from all over the world,” Fontecilla said. “This will only increase with immigration. So it is entirely normal that schoolchildren learn to live with this diversity.”
But just as philosopher Charles Taylor of the Bouchard-Taylor report has changed his mind on the ban, QS could also flip-flop. The party is meeting this coming weekend in Quebec City to take a position on the issue.
Legault, however, remains hopeful he will get more support.
“This issue has not been solved in 12 years,” Legault said. “I would like to turn the page and talk about health care, education, the economy. I would like it to be settled for the summer with the support of as many Quebecers as possible.”