Globe editorial: By defending a crucifix, Quebec crosses the line into hypocrisy

Globe editorial: By defending a crucifix, Quebec crosses the line into hypocrisy
Francois Legault considering grandfather clause for religious symbol ban
The crucifix hanging in Quebec's National Assembly is a historical symbol, not a religious one, even though it represents the Christian values of the province's two colonial ancestors, premier-designate François Legault said Thursday.

Legault made the comments as he defended his decision to keep the crucifix in the legislature while moving forward with plans to ban certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols.

"We have to understand our past," Legault told reporters in Yerevan, Armenia, where he is attending the summit of the Francophonie.

The crucifix, he said, invokes the role of French Catholics and British Protestants in Quebec's history. He made no mention of Indigenous people.

"In our past we had Protestants and Catholics. They built the values we have in Quebec. We have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs." 

The crucifix was installed above the speaker's chair in the National Assembly in 1936. A government-commissioned report into secularism and identity issues recommended in 2008 that it be removed, but no government has done so. 

Since his Coalition Avenir Québec won a majority in last week's provincial election, Legault has said one of his priorities will be preventing civil servants in "positions of authority" from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs and kippas.

Among those to be affected are police officers, provincial judges, prison guards and teachers. The move is necessary, according to Legault, in order to protect Quebec's secular society. 

He raised his plans in a meeting earlier Thursday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also in Yerevan attending the Francophonie summit and who has publicly opposed Legault's proposal. 

"This is a … delicate issue with Mr. Trudeau," Legault said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

"I told him I want to do this quickly. It's an issue that has lingered for 10 years, and now there is a consensus in Quebec."

Asked whether he feared a confrontation with Ottawa over the issue, Legault added: "Quebec is a nation. It is a distinct society. We have support. We just received a clear mandate in the election. I think all that has to be taken into account."

The incoming premier informed the prime minister that Quebec intends to accept 20 per cent fewer immigrants next year.

Legault also told Trudeau that Quebec will add language and value requirements for immigrants seeking to settle in the province.

Though immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, Quebec has an agreement with Ottawa that allows it to select its own economic immigrants.

According to Legault's account of the meeting, Trudeau raised the possibility that Quebec would be able to alter how it selects immigrants without reopening that agreement.

"He wasn't certain that we would need to modify the agreement between Quebec and Ottawa," Legault said in the Radio-Canada interview.

He added that representatives from the province would meet federal officials in the coming weeks to detail the "new immigration model that my government will put in place."  

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Quebecs next premier spent hours sitting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they flew to Armenia for the Francophonie summit, and on that trip they discussed multiple issues that may put their respective governments at odds.

The major sticking point will be the Coalition Avenir Quebecs proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols by people in positions of authority.

"I know Mr. Trudeau disagrees with our proposal, but I think its reasonable to say that we ban the wearing of religious signs but only by people in an authority position," said Francois Legault.

He said that the move is about imposing a secular state, although many critics have said it violates the Constitutional right for freedom of religion.

"I think its fair, and at the same time we make sure we dont have problems like Mrs. [Marine] Le Pen or Mr. Trump, having people that are racist who would like to see religious signs banned even in a public area," said Legault.

Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National, a far-right, anti-immigrant group in France, who praised Legaults election.

"We know the vast majority of Quebecers agree to ban religious signs. We have three parties out of four that agree with this ban," said Legault.

Many critics believe any law that banned wearing of religious symbols would violate the Canadian constitution, and point to the challenges faced by Bill 62.

That law, which banned face coverings by those using government-funded services, faced opposition from politicians like Legault who felt it did not go far enough.

Sections of Bill 62 were struck down by Quebec Superior Court in June, days before it was due to come into effect, because they violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Regardless, Legaut said he believed his governments proposals would pass legal muster, but if not, he would invoke the notwithstanding clause.

"This clause is to protect our collective rights, and I think if we compare to whats happening in many countries its reasonable to say that for neutrality reasons, a policeman or policewoman doesnt show a religious sign, in case the man or the woman in front of him or her is from another religion," said Legault.

"Were not asking to ban the religious signs for all public employees, in fact the vast majority would be able to keep on wearing [them]."

Legault did point out that nothing is yet set in stone, and its possible there would be different rules for those already working in authority positions.

"Im open to this kind of discussion of grandfather rights," said Legault "but we have two categories of employees if we do so."

Legault said that the crucifix which sits above the Speakers throne in the National Assembly — a gift from the Catholic Church in 1936 — would stay.

"I dont see this as a religious sign. I see this as being part of our history and part of our values," said Legault.

"We have a cross on our flag. I think that we have to understand that our past, we had Protestants, Catholics, they built the values we have in Quebec. Its part of our history. I think we have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs," said Legault.

He added that dealing with this issue is not his priority — hed rather deal with the economy and healthcare first — but said that Quebcers have been debating reasonable accommodations for more than a decade, and should put the issue to rest.

Legault has promised to reduce the number of immigrants coming to Quebec and on Thursday he said that he and Trudeau talked about how that could happen.

"We discussed about immigration, about the new model that I want to put in place, the model where we think we can do that without any new agreement with Ottawa," said Legault.

Under an agreement with the federal government Quebec has determined its own immigration requirements and selects its own immigrants — although any immigrant to Canada is, of course, free to travel and move to any province once accepted, either by the federal government or by Quebec.

Legault wants to reduce the number of immigrants Quebec accepts each year, from 53,000 to 40,000, and said he wants to ensure more of those immigrants stay in Quebec, and do better at integrating into society.

"Before giving the Quebec selection certificate we will request [they] succeed at a French test and a value test," said Legault.

He said that people who failed these tests would then have their citizenship applications denied by Quebec.

Quebec Premier-Designate Francois Legault talks to reporters at La Francophonie summit in Armenia on Oct. 11, 2018