Skip to main content

The last time a Quebec government delivered a Throne Speech on Nov. 28 was in 1989. Liberal premier Robert Bourassa had just been re-elected in a landslide following his use of the notwithstanding clause to override a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that had struck down the province’s ban on English commercial signs.

Mr. Bourassa’s decision to invoke the nuclear option, suspending the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Quebec’s anglophone minority, sparked outrage in the rest of Canada. The 1987 Meech Lake constitutional accord recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society” was already on shaky ground. Mr. Bourassa’s notwithstanding gambit all but sealed Meech’s sorry fate.

And, yet, the tone of that Throne Speech opening a new session of the National Assembly was resolute: “This Quebec society must remain a society [based on] French language and culture, at the same time as a land of welcome for newcomers and a place of fertile solidarity between French- and English-speaking Quebeckers.”

Months earlier, Mr. Bourassa had realized that a Quebec premier has one responsibility that ranks above all the others – standing up for the province’s French-speaking majority when the latter feels threatened. His move to invoke the notwithstanding clause, though fuelling the short-lived rise of an anglophone-rights party, was very popular with francophones. A 1989 Gallup poll found that, on the sign issue, more than three-quarters of Quebeckers considered cultural preservation more important than freedom of speech.

Plus ça change. While Quebec has since settled on a working (and constitutional) compromise on signs – French must be predominant, English is allowed in smaller characters – every Quebec premier must understand that his top task is to protect the province’s distinct culture against any threat, be it real or perceived.

For Quebec Premier François Legault, a former sovereigntist, this comes naturally. Wednesday’s throne speech opening the first session of the first Coalition Avenir Québec government confirmed Mr. Legault’s intention to proceed with legislation, likely in the spring, to prohibit state employees in a position of authority from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. “This question has been dragging on for 10 years now. Quebeckers have had enough,” Mr. Legault said after the Throne Speech.

Mr. Legault insists his proposed ban on religious symbols – which would apply to judges, police officers, Crown prosecutors, prison guards and teachers – has majority support among Quebeckers. And on that point, at least, he’s unequivocally correct.

A CROP poll commissioned by Radio-Canada and released this week to coincide with the Throne Speech found that more than 70 per cent of Quebeckers agree with the CAQ plan to prohibit judges, police and Crown prosecutors from wearing religious symbols. Fully 65 per cent agree the law should be extended to teachers, despite the opposition of both members of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission on religious accommodation that originally proposed a ban on religious symbols among state agents in a position of authority.

McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor has since dissociated himself from his report’s principal recommendation. And in an interview last month with the Montreal Gazette, he did not mince words about what he thinks about the CAQ plan: “Dangerous, appalling, divisive destructive – choose your epithet. I mean, it’s just a terrible mistake we’re moving into.”

And while Université du Québec à Chicoutimi historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard stands by his report, he has strongly criticized the CAQ plan to include teachers on its proposed list of state agents to be banned from wearing the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippah, Sikh turban or Christian crucifix while performing their professional duties

The CROP poll did not break down the results by language or religion. But with support for a ban on religious symbols almost as strong in the greater Montreal area as in the rest of the province, the poll’s results suggest that Quebeckers are divided along linguistic lines on this issue, not urban-rural ones. In fact, Quebeckers with a university degree are just as likely to support a ban on religious symbols as those without one. Degree-holding Quebeckers are also nearly as likely (51 per cent) to support maintaining the crucifix in the National Assembly – in the name of cultural, rather than religious, preservation – as those with a high-school diploma (55 per cent).

Mr. Legault has handed the task of crafting legislation to ban religious symbols to his Immigration Minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, a whip-smart 31-year-old lawyer who insists his proposed law would survive a constitutional challenge. Plenty of legal experts doubt it. No matter, Mr. Legault has indicated he would invoke the notwithstanding clause if his law gets struck down.

After all, a Quebec premier has to do what a Quebec premier has to do.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe