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Quebec's new leader vows to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols at work

François Legault promised to invoke the notwithstanding clause to ensure it happens.

by Steven Zhou
Oct 2 2018, 10:09pm

With the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) securing a majority government in Quebec last night, the nationalist party’s right-leaning leader is already promising to ban a swath of public sector employees — including judges, cops, teachers, daycare educators — from wearing religious symbols at work.

Premier-elect François Legault says he’s willing to use the notwithstanding clause to push through the ban should it face legal challenges. Along with a promise to reduce immigration into Quebec by 20 percent, the proposal highlights the CAQ’s nationalist agenda — one that reflects populist, right-wing sentiments on display throughout much of Canada and the Western world.

Legault’s proposed ban eclipses the religious neutrality law approved under the Quebec Liberal Party last year, and suspended by the courts. That law sought to ban providers and receivers of public services from covering their faces. Though it didn’t mention specific items of clothing or garment, the law is widely interpreted to be a ban on the face-covering worn by some Muslim women.

Legault’s proposal would go even further than that. A ban on all religious signs for a significant number of public servants takes the concept of “religious neutrality” to a whole new level. It wouldn’t just ban these public employees from wearing the Muslim face-covering ( niqab or chador) while on duty, but also the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, along with all other religious symbols. Legault has even promised alternative desk jobs to teachers who refuse to comply.

Debate around such proposals and laws goes back years in Quebec. The Parti Quebecois also proposed its infamous “charter of values” way back in the fall of 2013. Known as Bill 60, that proposal sought to ban all religious symbols from public institutions. The bill eventually died in 2014, but the underlying issues related to the controversy never really went away.

Much of that is thanks to the CAQ, a relative political upstart founded in 2011 by Legault, a former businessman who promised a break with Quebec’s old political order dominated by the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois. Legault began railing against police officers wearing the hijab. The then CAQ critic for secularism, Nathalie Roy, even publicly denounced the burkini, the swimwear worn by some Muslim women (banned in parts of France). Moreover, Legault has even vowed to deport immigrants who fail what he refers to as a test of their alignment with “Quebec values” and grasp of French within three years of arriving in Quebec, although how this would work is unclear since deportation falls under federal jurisdiction

Such issues around religion and identity seem to stir Quebec more than almost all other issues outside of sovereignty, which wasn’t even a top item in the lead-up to the election. The CAQ ran substantially on issues related to identity and immigration. As in many cases across the world, the bet has paid off handsomely. The CAQ won 74 seats in last night’s provincial election, well over the 63 needed to form a majority government.

Also barging its way into Quebec’s political mainstream is the left-wing sovereigntist party Quebec Solidaire, which secured a surprising 10 seats — and doubled its overall support from the last election. Meanwhile, the pro-federalist Liberals at the Parti Quebecois both turned in historically low performances, with 32 and 9 seats respectively.

Cover image of CAQ leader Francois Legault, speaking to reporters during a campaign stop in Coteau-du-Lac, Que., Sunday, September 16, 2018. Photo by Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press