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Canada CAQ holds first caucus meeting as Trudeau warns new government to tread lightly on use of notwithstanding clause

François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec were about 36 hours into the warm glow of winning a majority mandate in the provincial election when the new government’s first quarrel with Justin Trudeau broke out.

The CAQ held its first caucus meeting Wednesday where Mr. Legault gave a brief speech saying his party’s mission will be to bring Quebeckers together. Outside the meeting room, two of the people who will be stars in his government spent much of an hour explaining one of the party’s most divisive policies: to bar public servants in positions of authority from wearing religiously symbolic garments such as the head scarf many Muslim women wear.

In his first news conference as premier-designate Tuesday, Mr. Legault said he will use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to work around provisions that protect religious practice and expression to ensure people with “coercive functions” such as teachers, police and judges are dressed in a religiously neutral way.

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On Wednesday, Geneviève Guilbault and Simon Jolin-Barrette – two likely cabinet ministers in the CAQ government – explained the party will not use the clause pre-emptively, but will wait until the law is passed and struck down by a judge – something most constitutional experts say is a near certainty. “To say the clause will be used before even seeing a draft … we’ll see,” Mr. Jolin-Barrette said.

Ms. Guilbault added that public officials who refuse to remove their religious symbols will lose their jobs.

Mr. Jolin-Barrette, who was the CAQ’s justice critic in opposition, said he thinks the CAQ can draft a law that will be constitutional but, he added, the “notwithstanding clause is a legitimate tool” and a Trudeau family legacy. "It’s been there since 1982, it’s been used by a number of PQ and Liberal governments over the years,” Mr. Jolin-Barrette said. “The ex-prime minister Mr. Trudeau, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is the person who thought up this provision, which is available to all legislatures.”

In Ottawa Wednesday, Justin Trudeau suggested the CAQ tread lightly.

“As you know, I am not of the view that the government should tell women what they can or cannot wear,” the Prime Minister said. “The notwithstanding clause should only be used in exceptional cases and after much reflection and consideration on its impact. This is not something that can be done lightly because suppressing or not defending the fundamental rights of Canadians, I think, is something we should be careful about.”

The CAQ ban on religious symbols is part of a set of policies meant to promote a uniquely Quebec conception of secularism that protects Roman Catholic symbols as historical artifacts but demands religious neutrality in other areas. Other parts of the CAQ plan are intended to protect Quebec’s francophone language and identity, including a cut in immigration quotas and language and values tests for new arrivals.

The CAQ is struggling with an international image problem caused by the basket of policies. Media headlines in France described Mr. Legault’s CAQ as “a nationalist and anti-immigrant” government. He then received congratulations from Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right party National Front, who lauded him for being “lucid and firm” in the face of the migration challenge.

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Mr. Legault rejected the congratulations, pointing out his plan to reduce immigration by 20 per cent will still leave Quebec taking more immigrants than France or the United States. “I reject all association with Ms. Le Pen,” Mr. Legault said in a statement on social media. “We will favour integration and will accept fewer [immigrants] and take better care of them.”

With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa

Quebec premier-designate Francois Legault says he is prepared to use the notwithstanding clause to ban public officials in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. The Canadian Press
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