To minorities worried about religious symbols law, Quebec premier says he 'could have gone further'

Quebec's religious symbols law has been denounced by minority groups that say it will institutionalize discrimination by limiting job opportunities for people who wear the hijab, turban or kippa. Premier François Legault's response? "To avoid extremism, you have to give a little to the majority."

New law responds to desires of long-spurned majority, François Legault says in interview

Premier François Legault greets a constituent in his riding of L'Assomption on Tuesday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec Premier François Legault had a blunt message Tuesday for minorities worried about his government's new religious symbols law: the legislation, he said, "could have gone further."

The law, which was passed late Sunday, bars civil servants in positions of authority — including public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols while at work.

It's been roundly denounced by minority groups in the province that warn it will institutionalize discrimination by limiting employment opportunities for people who wear such commonplace religious garments as the hijab, turban or kippa. 

In an interview with Radio-Canada Tuesday, Legault was asked if he had anything to say to those Quebecers who will be affected by the law.

"We took a measure that was moderate. We could have gone further," he replied.

Legault pointed out that his law, which is limited to civil servants in positions of authority, didn't go as far as the so-called charter of values — a failed proposal by Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois government that would have prevented the wearing of "ostentatious" religious symbols by anyone in the health-care sector, as well as university employees.

"We could have asked if a doctor is in a position of authority in relation to his patient," Legault said when asked again to address the concerns of minorities and other critics of the law.

Legault says he has received positive feedback about the religious symbols law in his suburban riding east of Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Earlier in the interview, which took place in the premier's riding of L'Assomption, a community about 50 kilometres north of Montreal, Legault acknowledged that his government had to pay attention to the opposition sparked by the new measures.

"But you can't forget the majority either," he said. "The majority was asking for secularism, and they were ignored. Now they feel listened to."

He also justified his controversial legislation by pointing to far-right populist parties in Europe, which have used anti-immigrant rhetoric to make gains in several recent elections.

"To avoid extremism, you have to give a little to the majority," Legault said.

The premier said that Quebec's law on religious symbols is moderate compared to similar legislation in countries like France — where the niqab is banned in public, and students at state-run schools can't wear religious symbols of any kind. 

In comparison, Legault said, the Quebec law contains a grandfather clause, meaning it will only be applied to new teachers, and it covers just a small portion of the civil service.

"There are people who are a little racist and don't want to see religious symbols anywhere in public," Legault said, before promising his government would not propose any further restrictions.

Less than 12 hours after the law was passed, a Muslim advocacy group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, along with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court.

A judge is expected to hear arguments Thursday on whether the law should be subject to an injunction pending a more detailed review of its constitutionality. 

Immigrants 'have to play the game, too': Legault

The interview with Radio-Canada comes now that Legault's first legislative session as premier has wrapped up for the summer. His party, the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec, won a convincing majority in last October's election.

It is the first time since 1970 the province has been governed by a party other than the Liberals or the Parti Québécois. 

Legault used his majority to suspend normal legislative procedures last week, forcing members of the National Assembly to sit throughout the weekend to pass the two bills he considered priorities.

Legault was interviewed by Patrice Roy, left, the host of Radio-Canada's supper-hour newscast in Quebec. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Along with the religious symbols bill, the CAQ also rammed through an overhaul of Quebec's immigration system.

Under the immigration reforms, the government will be able to fast-track applications from workers with skills needed to fill labour shortages outside Montreal.

The immigration reform also allows the Quebec government to negotiate with Ottawa to potentially make permanent residency in the province dependent on passing a French-language test, as well as a so-called test of Quebec values. 

The prospect of a values test came under heavy scrutiny by the opposition Liberals during legislative hearings into the immigration bill.

Legault described the tests as an opportunity for immigrants to demonstrate they are using the public resources provided to them to further their integration.

"The people who've been here for three years, who've found a job, who were kindly welcomed, who received free French lessons — they have to play the game, too." 

Though his government was reluctant to provide details about the values test during the legislative hearings, Legault said Tuesday it would be similar to the federal citizenship test that permanent residents must pass before they become Canadians.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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