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QUEBEC – With the opposition describing it as a dark day in the history of Quebec, the Coalition Avenir Québec government Sunday set in motion the final steps towards the adoption of its secularism legislation, Bill 21 .
In an emotional question period before what is expected to be a late night vote, Premier François Legault swatted off a barrage of accusations over the bill – which overrides fundamental minority rights to impose a ban on religious symbols for some persons – saying it is anti-immigrant and will taint his personal legacy as premier forever.
Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand even reminded Legault that his personal mentor, René Lévesque, refused to suspend the normal rules of the legislature to fast track the Charter of the French Language into law in 1977.
In 1977, MNAs were allowed to debate the bill in the legislature all summer. In the case of Bill 21 – as was the case for Bill 9 reforming the immigration system Saturday – the rules are being suspended and debate snuffed out by the CAQ majority.
Bill 9 was adopted at 4 a.m. Sunday morning after a marathon 16 hours of debate.
“His legacy will be this shoddy, inapplicable law which tramples the rights of minorities,” Arcand fired across the floor at Legault.
“Mr. Premier, we will remember you for this.”
“I would like my legacy to be in education and economy but on certain issues, such as the secularism bill, it’s important to respond to the concerns and wishes of Quebecers. That’s what we’re going to do.
“Quebecers have been asking for a long time that we listen to them and today I am proud of what we are doing here today.”
But the opposition was not letting up with Québec solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion on her feet during preliminary remarks.
“Each person in this room who will vote for Bill 21 will bear the responsibility for this first great breach in the dike we had proudly erected to protect the fundamental rights of all Quebecers,” Dorion said.
You could hear a pin drop.
Later, veteran Marguerite-Bourgeoys MNA Hélène David, who for weeks has tangled with Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette over the bill, cut to the chase.
“In a few hours we will vote for a bill ignoring the most fundamental rights of Quebecers,” David said.
She then quoted French philosopher Albert Camus who once said: “Democracy is not the rule of the majority but the protection of the minority.”
“The minister said yesterday he is proud to have had recourse to closure; proud to have disowned the rights of parliamentarians to force adoption of the bill, proud to have trampled on the rights included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, proud to have suppressed the rights of minorities.
“Is this really how the minister wants to be remembered in history?”
Bill 21 includes a ban on religious symbols such as the crucifix, turban, hijab and kippah for state employees in positions of authority including judges, police officers, prosecutors, court clerks and elementary and high school teachers.
The bill includes a grandfather clause allowing existing employees to keep their symbols. There is no official estimate on the number of employees affected but it is a relatively small number.
Later, former Liberal justice minister Kathleen Weil, the MNA for Notre-Dame-de-Grace tweeted out an emotional reaction, saying Sunday is a “sombre day,” for Quebec but that she believes justice will prevail in the long run.
In the same question period, Lafontaine MNA Marc Tanguay reminded Justice Minister Sonia LeBel that the Quebec Human Rights Commission has condemned Bill 21 and that La Presse recently reported that the government’s own lawyers disapprove.
LeBel responded saying as justice minister she cannot address the legal issues connected to the bill.
“But I would like to take advantage of this occasion to say loud and clear that I support the principle of secularism,” LeBel said. “I support the ban on the wearing of religious symbols.”
QS co-spokesman Manon Massé said it was a “sad day,” for Quebec.
“Taking away the rights of our fellow citizens is not a shining moment in the history of Quebec,” Massé told the house. “In fact, I am hurting for my Quebec today.”
She said the fact that the government is taking away rights by cutting off debate using closure “only adds insult to injury.”
“I need to know: is the premier proud of this?”
Legault then answered: “Someone once said, beware of those who say they like the people but do not listen to what the people want.”
“Today we have a good example. We have 8 million Quebecers in a universe of hundreds of millions of anglophones. These people will always be vulnerable.
“The charter included a notwithstanding clause. It was always foreseen that it be used at times in the context of collective rights and that is what we are going with Bill 21.”
But on his way into question period, Legault was asked whether he thinks future governments will want to renew the notwithstanding clause which has a five year expiration date.
He ventured that even if the opposition says today it is opposed to the bill, he doesn’t believe the next Quebec government will want to re-visit the issue.
Moments earlier, David, told reporters if the Liberals, which currently do not have a permanent leader, take power in 2022, there is “good chance we will want to amend it.”
“We have five years ahead of us,” Legault said. “My prediction, is that the Liberals, PQ, anybody…I don’t think they will be in power in five years, but they will not change this law,” Legault told reporters.
Legault also mischievously predicted one of the future Liberal leadership candidates will take a stand in favour of a ban to woo back francophone nationalist voters.
He again defended the use of the clause.
“Quebecers have the right to say to the rest of Canada this is how we live in Quebec,” Legault said.
Legault said he expects there might be a “little backlash,” after the bill is adopted but the vast majority of Quebecers understand it is a moderate bill and only new employees are affected by the ban because the bill includes a grandfather clause.
About the only question mark Sunday was how the Parti Québécois – which ventured down a similar path of a ban on symbols with its old charter of values – would vote in the crunch.
While the party is generally in favour of the bill, interim PQ leader Pascal Bérubé told reporters he does not think Bill 21 goes far enough.
The PQ wants the ban on symbols to be expanded to cover the private school system and teachers in the public daycare system.
He said the PQ would try one last time to amend the bill to improve it.
QS will oppose the bill.
The vote on Bill 21 will spark another important decision for the National Assembly to make: what to do about the crucifix hanging over the speakers chair in the blue room of the legislature?
Ironically, it will still be hanging there late Sunday when they vote to adopt the secularism bill. It was put there in 1939 by former premier Maurice Duplessis to symbolize an alliance of church and state.
After Jolin-Barrette tabled Bill 21 in March, MNAs in the legislature voted in favour of moving the crucifix to a less conspicuous location where it would be treated as a historic relic.
Legault presented the motion to move it out of the blue room as a compromise.
“I would have preferred to keep it,” Legault said. “But we decided to make a compromise, to be coherent.”
Asked when and how the crucifix will be moved after the vote, Legault said it will be up to the legislature’s administrative branch to determine how to proceed and what part of the building it will hang in.
“We said we will move it, not remove it,” Legault said.
Asked when, Legault said: “It will probably be done this summer.”
When a reporter said, “When nobody is looking,” Legault just smiled.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019