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Quebec Premier and Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard touches his heart while members of his staff applaud as announces his resignation as Premier and MNA for the riding of Roberval, Oct. 4, 2018 at the legislature in Quebec City. Couillard's wife Suzanne Pilote, left, looks on.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Premier Philippe Couillard had a parting message for his CAQ replacement and Quebec’s political class as he announced his departure from politics: History will judge how well you protect the province’s minorities and immigrants.

With his wife, Suzanne Pilotte, comforting him as he broke into tears, Mr. Couillard announced on Thursday that he is retiring from politics three days after he led the Quebec Liberal Party to its lowest share of the popular vote since Confederation.

Mr. Couillard’s speech at the entrance of the Premier’s office lasted 11 minutes and about half of it was aimed at the renewed debate in the province about the place of diversity that was renewed with the election of the Coalition Avenir Québec under François Legault.

Mr. Legault’s party has proposed a series of measures intended to protect Quebec’s identity and the French language, including cutting immigration quotas, imposing values and language tests on migrants and introducing a dress code to ban religious expression among some public servants, including teachers and others in positions of authority.

In his first news conference as premier-designate on Tuesday, Mr. Legault said he will proceed with the law and would go as far as invoking the notwithstanding clause to override freedom of religion and expression should a court strike it down. Mr. Couillard, who had been silent since the Monday night loss, clearly took note.

“The National Assembly must protect minority rights if it is to maintain legitimacy, Mr. Couillard said. “The majority doesn’t have all the rights and those it does exercise must be balanced with those of the minority. It’s a fundamental democratic principle.

“Quebec must remain a smiling place of welcome, where people are judged by what is in their head, not on their head, what is in their hearts.”

Mr. Couillard cited the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, saying the treatment of minorities and women is one of humanity’s “clearest indicators of moral advancement or decline.” But the outgoing Premier has his own legacy on these issues.

His government passed a 2017 law requiring people to receive and give public services with their faces uncovered. The measure, which mostly affects Muslim women who wear the all-covering burka or niqab, responded to popular demand that the government reinforce the religious neutrality of the state. It did not go far enough for the CAQ. The law instructed public servants to make exceptions when necessary.

A niqab-wearing woman challenged the law and a judge suspended it almost immediately. Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard maintained the suspension last summer, calling the law ambiguous, confusing and “highly dubious.”

“In a free and democratic society, citizens are not required to obtain, in advance, permission from any state representative to engage in unregulated social behaviour,” he wrote.

Mr. Couillard, 61, did not mention the law as he listed his government’s accomplishments – improving the province’s economy and long-term financial health chief among them. “I’m leaving the province in much better shape than I found it in 2014,” he said. Mr. Couillard linked issues around immigration to the economic performance of the province, which faces manpower shortages.

“New arrivals who will fill these jobs do not represent a threat to our distinct character in North America,” Mr. Couillard said. “On the contrary.”

Mr. Couillard said Quebeckers have spent 400 years defending their freedom rights that are contained in both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. “They are precious and fragile. Take great care of them,” he said. “Every word, every gesture counts.”

Mr. Legault is expected to be sworn in and take over the premier’s chair before the end of the month. His CAQ swept vast areas of the province outside Montreal and will be the first new party to win government since the Parti Québécois victory in 1976.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked Mr. Couillard: “I know that his service to his community and to his country is at the heart of who he is.”

Mr. Couillard, a neurosurgeon by training who was health minister under Jean Charest and took a brief break in the private sector before taking over the Liberal leadership in 2014, said he hopes people in his home riding of Roberval will understand that he can’t carry on. “I’m not sure what the future holds, but it certainly will include more serenity, more contact with my mother, my children and my grandchildren,” he said.

With a report from Nicolas Van Praet in Montreal

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