Bernard Drainville, the former Parti Québécois minister responsible for the controversial secular charter, is denying claims by Quebec’s new Liberal government that Ministry of Justice officials were never consulted on the constitutionality of the bill before it was tabled last November.
Drainville defended his handling of the file Tuesday morning amid mounting pressure to resign his seat in the National Assembly.
In September, Drainville said the proposed charter was on a solid legal footing based on judicial advice that the PQ government had received.
Had it become law, it would have banned the wearing of overtly religious symbols by public sector employees.
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However, reports emerged last week claiming that the Ministry of Justice was never approached for a formal legal opinion on the constitutionality of the charter before it was tabled in the National Assembly.
Drainville denied that claim on Tuesday, saying there was an ongoing dialogue between his office and the Ministry of Justice on the file — and on the issues of equality, religious freedom and recourse to the notwithstanding clause in particular.
The Ministry of Justice says those consultations did not amount to formal legal opinions.
Drainville said he also sought the advice of “close to 10” prominent jurists on key parts of the proposed secular charter, including whether or not it was constitutional.
He said it was a standard practice of governments to not reveal those legal opinions.
“We were confident that we had the whole picture, which allowed us to proceed with the charter by stating that, in our view, it was a constitutional project,” Drainville said.
One jurist who Drainville consulted was Henri Brun. However, Brun recently denied that he provided a legal opinion on the charter.
Drainville says Brun did not give a formal opinion on Bill 60, the legislation that was tabled in the National Assembly in November, but did give a formal opinion on the contents of the charter before it was unveiled publicly last September.
Drainville says the ultimate goal was not to engage Quebecers in a constitutional or legal discussion, but rather start a much-needed debate on checks and balances, equality, state neutrality and, above all else, Quebec's fundamental values.
“That was a great gain for Quebec and I hope we don’t lose it,” he said.
Gérard Bouchard calls for Drainville to resign
Gérard Bouchard, the prominent historian and co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on religious accommodation, disagreed with Drainville’s take on the charter’s contributions to Quebec society.
In a letter published Tuesday in La Presse newspaper, Bouchard called on Drainville to resign, saying he was responsible for “inflammatory and misleading statements that aimed to pit a majority of Quebecers against immigrants and minority groups.”
“All those who led the way to intolerance, hypocrisy and amateurism must go,” he wrote.
“As for those who engaged in shameless demagogy, either by popularizing lies, or encouraging them through complacent silence, we must ask if they really do qualify for political or public office.”
Drainville said Bouchard’s comments were based on the belief he did not seek legal advice from the justice ministry while drafting the charter.
“The [charter] debate was managed in a very responsible manner, in a very rigorous manner,” he said. “All along, there were legal experts involved to make sure that everything was OK from a judicial perspective.”