François Legault would invoke notwithstanding clause to ban hijabs from civil service

Quebec premier-designate François Legault says he is prepared to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override any attempts to block a religious neutrality law that would prohibit public workers from wearing a religious symbol.

Coalition Avenir Québec leader lays out priorities for new majority government

François Legault, Quebec's premier-designate, laid out his priorities for the province at a news conference Tuesday, a day after the CAQ's decisive provincial election win. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Quebec's premier-designate says he is prepared to invoke the notwithstanding clause to enforce a prohibition on any public employee from wearing a religious symbol such as a hijab or kippa in the workplace.

François Legault would also move swiftly to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the province by 20 per cent. 

He made the comments Tuesday, at his first news conference since his Coalition Avenir Québec won a decisive majority in Monday's provincial election, beating out the incumbent Liberals.

In his opening remarks, Legault emphasized that making improvements to health care and education would be the immediate priorities for his government.

But when asked by reporters about the notwithstanding clause and his immigration policy, he didn't back down. 

"I think that the vast majority of Quebecers, they would like to have a framework where people in an authority position must not wear a religious sign," Legault said.

Political leaders generally have been reluctant to use the notwithstanding clause, which is viewed by many as politically perilous.

However, just last month, new Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to use the constitutional provision to override an Ontario Superior Court ruling that struck down the government's bill shrinking the size of Toronto city council on the grounds that it violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Ontario Court of Appeal later stayed the lower court decision, allowing Ford to proceed with the reduction ahead of an Oct. 22 municipal election.

Teachers would be affected

The CAQ wants to pass a secular charter that would go further than the Quebec Liberals' religious neutrality law, which is already the subject of a constitutional challenge.

The right-of-centre party, which has never before held power in Quebec, opposes the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab, by police officers and others who wield coercive state power.

Legault said Tuesday he would offer those affected, including teachers, "jobs in offices for people who want to keep wearing a religious sign."

His pledges to ensure the religious neutrality is one of several significant changes Quebecers can expect under a CAQ government.

Legault also vowed to move forward on his vow to reduce the number of immigrants, saying more needs to be done to ensure they are integrated and learn French. 

During the election campaign, Legault struggled to explain how his policy would be implemented, given that the province only controls the number of economic immigrants it takes in, while the federal government controls the number of refugees and the family reunification program. 

Legal age for pot up, school boards out

Legault said he would fulfil a campaign pledge to raise the legal age limit for cannabis from 18 to 21, though not before it becomes legal across Canada for recreational use this month.

He also promised to go ahead with a promise to abolish school boards and replace them with service centres, another move likely to face a court challenge from anglophone groups that argue it would infringe on their rights.

In the past, Legault has said he would be prepared to invoke the notwithstanding clause on that matter as well.

Legault added that he wants to talk with the federal government about the new trade pact and its impact on the province's dairy farmers, who have denounced the deal.

Speaking in English, Legault, a former member of Parti Québécois who has set aside the debate over sovereignty, stressed that he is prepared to work with Ottawa. 

"I want to assure the rest of Canada of my will to build a stronger Quebec within Canada in a win-win relationship," he said. 

Immediate focus on schools, more family doctors

But his immediate focus, he said, would be education, health care and helping grow the province's already booming economy.

Legault said he would improve the condition of the province's schools, provide more resources for children with special needs and improve access to family doctors. 

In the Quebec election, the CAQ capitalized on an appetite for change among voters to propel the party to a majority government.

The party did so, however, with a historically low level of the popular vote. Despite benefiting from the province's first-past-the-post system, Legault said he would honour a pledge to introduce legislation that would bring proportional representation to the province in the coming year. 

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard looks down at his speech as he speaks to supporters after he lost the general election to a majority CAQ government on Monday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Liberals, under leader Philippe Couillard, also made history, with the lowest ever level of the popular vote. In his concession speech he said he would take a few days to consider his political future.

The election also saw major losses for the pro-independence Parti Québécois at the hands of another emerging party, Québec Solidaire. PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée resigned after losing his seat.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said Ontario Premier Doug Ford used the notwithstanding clause to override an Ontario Superior Court decision. In fact, he only threatened to use it.
    Oct 02, 2018 2:54 PM ET

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.