The incoming Quebec government under François Legault is opening the door to compromise on a proposal to ban some civil servants from wearing religiously symbolic garments after protests in the streets and criticism from a former prime minister.
Simon Jolin-Barrette, Coalition Avenir Québec transition spokesperson and a probable cabinet minister when the government is sworn in on Oct. 18, said the CAQ will talk to the opposition parties about the possibility of making the policy apply only to newly hired or appointed people.
“Right now, our position is there will not be any accrued rights,” Mr. Jolin-Barrette told reporters in Quebec City. “But that being said, we are certainly willing to work with the opposition parties to ensure we can finally move on to other things.”
Mr. Jolin-Barrette said the CAQ is acting on a consensus in Quebec by moving toward a kind of official secularism by banning civil servants in positions of authority such as judges, police, prosecutors and prison guards, along with teachers, from wearing religious symbols.
Cracks in whatever consensus existed showed in the first week after the CAQ’s Oct. 1 victory. On the weekend, thousands of Montrealers marched in the streets to protest against the policy, along with proposed cuts to immigration, and values and language tests for immigrants. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien told The Canadian Press the debate is pointless and outdated.
Mr. Legault, the premier-designate, has long held that his party’s position is based on the Bouchard-Taylor report from a decade ago, which suggested officials with “coercive functions” should not wear religious garments. But the recommendation did not include teachers. Mr. Jolin-Barrette said the CAQ will not propose taking down the crucifix in the National Assembly, as the report suggested.
Many legal experts say the proposed dress code would likely contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Quebec’s bill of rights. They also point out it might be impossible to impose a dress code on judges. Many are appointed by Ottawa, and Quebec’s judicial council enforces its own rules on courtroom decorum, including how to dress.
“The internal functioning of the courts is protected by the principle of judicial independence and cannot be overruled by another branch of the state,” said Patrick Taillon, professor of constitutional law at Laval University. “The CAQ can pass a law if it pleases outlining its principles, but ultimately, it’s up to the courts to form their own interpretation.”
Mr. Jolin-Barrette said the government will apply a rule anyway, and that judges will determine how to apply it. "We are aware of the separation of powers and we will respect the separation of powers,” he said.
While no official statistics exist on the issue, at least a handful of Quebec teachers are known to wear turbans, veils, kippas or crucifixes. No Quebec judges are known to wear religious symbols. It is less clear if any of the thousands of police officers under provincial jurisdiction do, as in forces across Canada.
Montreal school boards and teachers' unions have backed Sikh and Muslim teachers who say they have taught for years without incident and will fight for their right to carry on wearing their turbans and veils.
Mr. Jolin-Barrette said the CAQ’s majority win last week gives it the mandate to go ahead with the plan, which polls have shown most Quebeckers support.