The CAQ minister piloting the controversial religious-symbols bill said he is ‘sensitive to the reality’ of minorities but confident of passage.
QUEBEC — In his book J’ai confiance, written before the Coalition Avenir Québec took power, Simon Jolin-Barrette reveals that one movie in particular impressed him on his path to becoming a lawyer: the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men.
Set in a New York county courthouse, a jury of 12 are deliberating on the fate of an 18-year-old man charged in the stabbing death of his father.
The theme focuses on the legal concept of reasonable doubt and the human condition. While 11 members of the jury are ready to convict in a hurry, Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, raises questions and eventually convinces the others to reverse course and free the accused.
“Law is not God’s justice,” Jolin-Barrette writes in explaining what he took away from the movie. “Justice is the business of men and women, in the flesh, who can make mistakes.”
Today, Jolin-Barrette finds himself making his own legal arguments as he pilots the controversial Bill 21 through the adoption process and the court of public opinion at the same time.
An only child of a policeman and a mother who worked at Desjardins, Jolin-Barrette studied law at the Université de Sherbrooke, passing the bar in 2010.
Besides also being the CAQ house leader, he is responsible for another contested piece of legislation, Bill 9, reforming Quebec’s immigration system, which has earned him the title of Premier François Legault’s super minister.
Jolin-Barrette concedes that when he jumped into politics in 2014 by defeating a sitting cabinet minister in the Parti Québécois stronghold of Borduas, he never imagined one day becoming the CAQ’s secularism salesman.
“The secularism file never really crossed my mind,” Jolin-Barrette said Thursday in an interview with the Montreal Gazette just as hearings into Bill 21 were ending. “When Mr. Legault announced I was getting it, I was a bit surprised.
“Lots of people thought the PQ went way too far with its Charter of Values, while the Liberal Party with Bill 62 didn’t go far enough. Ours reflects what we promised (in the election), is applicable and above all moderate and reflects a consensus.”
But while polls show the majority of Quebecers support the bill, the hearings revealed it is far less popular with minority communities, unionized workers, religious groups and feminists.
Asked if he fears being saddled with the image of the secularism bad guy, Jolin-Barrette said he is convinced Quebec is on the right track, noting the hearings showed not all minorities oppose the bill.
“It covers everyone,” he said. “All religions are targeted. We put them on the same footing. And the number of jobs affected is very limited.
“When I hear groups say career possibilities will be restricted, it’s false. It is also false to say it (the ban on religious symbols for authority figures) covers all jobs in the public sector. I even heard at moments that wearing religious symbols in public is banned.
“That is completely false. It’s my job to repeat this and educate people. The ban on religious symbols is during work hours for people with specific functions. It’s a limited group of people.”
Some groups complained about collateral damage as a result of the government’s decision to re-open the emotional debate but Jolin-Barrette said he has done his best to denounce language hyperbole on either side of the equation.
He listed comments made by Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg who called Bill 21 a form of peaceful ethnic cleansing and former senator Céline Hervieux-Payette who equated the Muslim veil with female circumcision, torture and forced marriage.
“I am happy with the discussions, happy with the tone of the debates we had,” he said, adding he is “sensitive to the reality” of minorities at the same time as insisting the law will apply to all.
Jolin-Barrette also addressed repeated claims that Quebec is already secular and Bill 21 ‘is a law in search of a problem to fix.’
“Mme (Valérie) Plante says the city of Montreal is secular, Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau says Canada is secular but, I am sorry to say, in law it’s not true. It’s the first time we are going to enshrine secularism in our laws.”
The bill has faced criticism at hearings for failing to specifically define the religious symbols the government wants to ban, an opening which will be used in looming legal challenges.
Jolin-Barrette repeated that, in his mind, the “common sense” concept of a symbol suffices.
Some groups, however, said the government is dreaming if it believes Bill 21 will settle the debate once and for all.