The federal Conservatives say they would not stand in the way of the Quebec government if it moves to bar some provincial employees from wearing religious symbols at work.
In an interview, Conservative MP Gérard Deltell said his party accepts the incoming Coalition Avenir Québec government’s right to introduce legislation on the matter, would not oppose the possible use of the notwithstanding clause to make it Charter compliant and would not join a legal challenge of the legislation.
The Conservative position differs from that of the Liberals and NDP. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not believe the Quebec government should be legislating on the issue of religious symbols and opposes in this case the possible use of the notwithstanding clause. The federal NDP also objects to attempts to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in this case.
“We respect the jurisdictions of the provinces, and the provinces can use the notwithstanding clause, period," Mr. Deltell said. "It’s not up to us to judge whether their decision is well founded or not.”
The duelling positions on the issue of religious symbols could reverberate into next year’s federal election. The NDP is facing an uphill battle in Quebec under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh, while the Bloc Québécois recently had a major leadership crisis, providing the Conservative and Liberal parties with room to grow in the province. The issue of religious symbols in government rocked the previous federal election in Quebec and the debate goes on to this day.
Quebec premier-designate François Legault, who will swear in his new government on Thursday, has promised to enact legislation that would prevent some provincial workers from wearing religious symbols on the job. While there has been confusion on the CAQ’s exact plans, Mr. Legault has made it clear that workers such as teachers, police officers and judges will have to dress in a religiously neutral way.
The CAQ’s proposed 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 otherwise demands religious neutrality.
Mr. Trudeau has objected to a series of proposals, whether from the CAQ or other parties in Quebec, to enact legislation that would prevent, for example, a Muslim woman from wearing a veil. He has also expressed reservations about the potential use of the notwithstanding clause, which Mr. Legault said he was prepared to invoke in order to enact his proposed religious symbols legislation.
“The notwithstanding clause should only be used in exceptional cases and after much reflection and consideration on its impact," Mr. Trudeau said earlier this month. "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 NDP also argued the notwithstanding clause should not be used in this case to override any possible court challenges.
“We have serious concerns around repeated and reckless use of the notwithstanding clause," NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said. "Mr. Legault’s proposal appears to be an inappropriate use of the clause, but there are a lot of hypothetical questions that would need to be resolved before that.”
The Conservatives have been less critical of such legislation under the leadership of Andrew Scheer than under previous leader Stephen Harper. Mr. Deltell said his party does not have a formal position on the CAQ’s proposal, given that it has yet to be tabled. Still, he repeatedly said the federal government should not interfere with the ability of provincial government to enact legislation in their areas of jurisdiction.