Montreal

Opposition Liberals challenge Legault's push to pass religious symbols bill by June

Quebec Liberals say five weeks of debate is not enough time to get through Bill 21, the controversial draft legislation that would ban certain public workers from wearing religious symbols.

Premier says there is plenty of time to pass Bill 21 and he'll invoke closure, if need be, to speed up process

Interim Quebec Liberal Party leader Pierre Arcand and the critic for the status of women, Hélène David, have criticized the CAQ government's effort to push through Bill 21 without a clear plan on how it would be enforced — something Legault has said will be sorted out later. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec Premier François Legault wants to pass Bill 21, the controversial draft legislation that would ban certain public employees from wearing religious symbols on the job, by mid-June — but the Official Opposition says there is no reason to move so quickly.

"You have all seen the reaction since this bill was tabled last Thursday," said the Quebec Liberal Party's interim leader, Pierre Arcand, at a news conference Thursday, with status of women critic Hélène David at hs side.

"Where is the actual emergency?"

Citing protests and public outcry, Arcand challenged the CAQ government's effort to push the bill through without a clear plan on how it would be enforced — something Legault has said will be sorted out later.

Five weeks of debate on such a complex and sensitive bill is not enough time, Arcand said.

But the premier says there's no reason to wait.

"Right now in many other countries they have rules that are similar or even tougher than what we propose," the premier said. 'We have a reasonable proposal, and I think it's time that we turn the page."

Anti-Bill 21 groups mobilizing

Civil rights groups and other levels of government see it differently, however. A coalition of municipal, provincial, federal and school board representatives will announce their plans Friday to mobilize their constituents to oppose Bill 21.

Legault said he recognizes that the population is divided on the proposed law, but he wants public peace in the province, and that's why it's important to adopt the bill as quickly as possible.

He said he won't rule out invoking closure — something majority governments can do to cease debate on a bill and force a vote.

"This is the first time I have seen this," said Arcand, criticizing the premier for invoking the rarely used power. "I think it would be worth it to take our time."

Legault counters that "everything has been said" on the secularism issue over the course of the past decade, and he says lengthy debates are not going to change the minds of the four political parties.

Quebec Premier François Legault says its time to 'turn the page' and push the proposed law through. Five weeks is plenty of time to debate it, he says, and he'll invoke closure if needed. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"Stretching the file would not necessarily be good for social cohesion," Legault said, calling the June 14 deadline realistic despite the scheduled week-long session breaks in April and May.

Civil rights groups have already vowed to challenge the legislation, but Legault has repeatedly said he's prepared to use the notwithstanding clause to impose the ban, as well.

Legault has also dismissed critics' claims that he is pitting Quebec's English-speaking population against francophones when he compares the debate surrounding Bill 21 to the province's controversial French-language charter — a  hot-button controversy that sparked public outcry in the 1970s.

"We had the same with Bill 101 at the time," said Legault on Wednesday when asked about a student-led protest in front of Westmount High School.

"I think it's important that we respect the values of the people without hurting any minorities."

With files from Radio-Canada and La Presse Canadienne

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