State shouldn't tell women what to wear, Trudeau says as Quebec promises ban on religious symbols

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging Quebec's incoming premier to consider "the fundamental rights of Canadians" before proceeding with a plan to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab or kippa.

Those who don't comply with coming law will lose their jobs, representative for incoming government says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the notwithstanding clause 'should only be used in exceptional cases.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging Quebec's incoming premier to consider "the fundamental rights of Canadians" before proceeding with a plan to ban some public employees from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab or kippa.

François Legault said the ban would apply to civil servants in positions of authority, including judges, prosecutors and police officers, as well as teachers. And he said he would be prepared to use the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if the ban is deemed unconstitutional.

Those who don't comply would lose their jobs, a representative for Legault's incoming government said Wednesday.

Trudeau urged Legault to be cautious before using the notwithstanding clause to overturn a court challenge.

"The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is there to protect our rights and freedoms, obviously," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa, adding that he believes the state should not "tell a woman what she can or cannot wear."

"It's not something that should be done lightly because to remove or avoid defending the fundamental rights of Canadians, I think it's something with which you have to pay careful attention,'' he said.

Trudeau added that the notwithstanding clause, "as I've said in the case of Ontario, should only be used in exceptional cases and after a lot of reflection and deep consideration of the consequences."

Coalition Avenir Québec, which won a majority in Monday's provincial election, wants to pass a secular charter that would, in some respects, go further than the Quebec Liberals' religious neutrality law, which is already the subject of a constitutional challenge.

The notwithstanding clause is rarely used in Canada but last month, new Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to invoke the constitutional provision to override a ruling that struck down the government's bill that would shrink the size of Toronto city council.

Teachers could lose their jobs, CAQ says

Members of Legault's party said Wednesday they were confident the law would not violate the charter, but that they would be prepared to invoke the clause if necessary.

"We always had a clear position on this. And now that we are the government, we will do what it takes," said Geneviève Guilbault, a CAQ MNA whose name has been floated as a possible deputy premier.

Guilbeault said people affected by the law would be "free to relocate to another position that will not be in a position of authority, but it will be up to them, at that moment, to make the appropriate choice."

When asked by a reporter if that, essentially, means they would lose their job, she replied: "They will make the choice to no longer occupy the job if they wish to maintain the wearing of the religious sign."

At his first meeting with caucus members on Wednesday, Legault stressed that his priorities for the CAQ government were improving the province's education and health-care sectors.

But his pledge to restrict religious symbols and cut the number of immigrants have drawn the most attention since the election. 

Anti-racism advocates are already planning a march in Montreal on Sunday against the CAQ's policies.

Quebec premier-designate François Legault addresses a meeting of his new caucus and defeated candidates in Boucherville, Que., on Wednesday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The CAQ faced questions, as well, on Wednesday about a supportive tweet for the party from the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen over Legault's immigration policy.

Guilbault said the CAQ rejects "any association with Marine Le Pen and her political party."

"We are in Quebec a really inclusive and welcoming society," she said.

"Our main goal as a government is to integrate more, and better, the immigrants who chose to come here."


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate change, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.