Accused of lying to the public, the former cabinet minister behind the controversial charter of Quebec values insists he sought legal opinions for the now-defunct proposal that would have banned public workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.
Bernard Drainville acknowledged that the Parti Québécois did not follow the standard practice of seeking a written legal opinion from the Quebec Justice Department for all of the draft Bill 60, the legislation that introduced the charter. However, in interviews on Tuesday, Mr. Drainville insisted justice department lawyers were consulted on "essential parts."
"I didn't want to talk about legal opinions because it's not done. It's irresponsible. You don't want to give ammunition to people who might want to challenge it in court," Mr. Drainville said in a Radio-Canada interview.
When he unveiled the project last year, Mr. Drainville insisted it had "solid legal foundations." Some legal experts warned a ban on overt religious items, such as Muslim veils or Sikh turbans, would contravene the provincial and federal charters of rights.
Mr. Drainville is now in a difficult spot. His party lost the election last month, and the new Liberal government has asked bureaucrats whether the PQ checked the constitutionality of Bill 60.
"The Department of Justice was not asked to produce a legal opinion on the constitutionality or legality on the whole of the bill, to evaluate the risks of being challenged in courts," deputy minister Nathalie Drouin replied in a letter last week to the new justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée. "Normally, a bill of this nature would be subjected to a request to produce such a written opinion."
The letter confirms that department lawyers were consulted on some aspects of the charter.
In the PQ shadow cabinet, Mr. Drainville is the critic for the natural-resources portfolio. After days of criticism, he broke his silence on Tuesday, appearing on several morning radio and television shows. "For the last few days, I've been called a liar," Mr. Drainville said.
The latest volley came from Gérard Bouchard, the historian and sociologist who co-chaired a public inquiry into issues of reasonable accommodation. "We now know the sinister role played by the Marois-Drainville tandem," Mr. Bouchard wrote in a letter published in La Presse on Tuesday.
He said the charter was a project where "imbecility (let's call it by its name) was competing with dishonesty."
Mr. Bouchard also called on Mr. Drainville to resign from his legislature seat. "For more than a year, he repeatedly made incendiary and deceitful remarks to pit the majority of Quebeckers against minorities and immigrants."
Mr. Drainville said that, in addition to government lawyers looking at some parts of the charter, he also consulted 10 other legal experts.
He said the proposal got the backing of two prominent jurists, Laval University professor Henri Brun and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé.
Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé's opinion was given verbally. "She didn't leave me a written note," Mr. Drainville said. The former justice has spoken before a legislature committee to say that it would be "perfectly legitimate" for the Quebec government to use the notwithstanding clause to enact the charter should it be found to contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Prof. Brun has told Le Devoir that he did not give a legal opinion on the draft bill. He said he was paid $6,000 for written and oral opinions to help prepare an earlier brief that was presented to the cabinet.