MONTREAL — Quebecers are regaining a sense of pride now that the government is set to force through a secularism bill that bans many public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, Premier Francois Legault said Friday.
Legault told reporters people stop him in the street and encourage him to get the controversial Bill 21 passed into law. "They tell me: 'Don't let go!'" he said during a news conference in Quebec City.
"They say they are proud," he continued. "To feel this regained pride among our people, who are standing up, advancing — it makes me the happiest man in the world to be their premier."
Despite criticism from opposition parties, human rights advocates, lawyers and organizations representing minority groups, Legault plans to invoke closure and push the bill through this weekend.
That means the legislature will sit over the next two days before breaking for the summer to debate Bill 21 as well as Bill 9, on immigration reform. The legislative mechanism of closure allows the government to end debate and use its majority to force a vote.
Quebec's Bill 21 would ban public servants in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols on the job.
"Quebecers have been wishing for a long time to prohibit religious symbols for people in authority and they are saying: 'Finally. We have a government who listened to us — who understood us,' " Legault said.
He said legislative debate has gone on long enough, and the bill needs to be adopted to send a message to the people who voted for his Coalition Avenir Quebec party.
"There is a signal that is being sent," the premier said earlier in the day. "It's been 11 years. It's a societal debate we should put behind us. There was a clear desire that was expressed eight months ago," he said, referring to his October electoral victory over the Liberals.
"To let this drag on," Legault added, "there will be a risk for social cohesion."
During the afternoon news conference, Legault argued that by clearly legislating on secularism, Quebec will avoid the right-wing extremism seen in parts of Europe.
"A bill that is moderate, applies to very few people, but that allows us to send a message that we want to protect our values and our way of life, I think is the best way," he said."
But opposition parties argue the government is damaging social cohesion by using closure on a bill that curtails the rights of citizens, especially minorities. The bill already invokes the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to prevent court challenges based on rights violations.
Quebec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Legault's contention that Bill 21 will end the debate in society over secularism is laughable.
He said many of the people who spoke at committee in support of the bill, such as academics and activists, wanted it to go even farther.
"Over the next few years, these people will continue to make themselves heard and push and push to ban (religious symbols) more and more," he told reporters.
As if to confirm Nadeau-Dubois' fears, interim Parti Quebecois leader Pascal Berube later told reporters his party wants the government to accept two amendments that would extend Bill 21 to apply to daycare workers and private school teachers.
"We want a bill that is more coherent," said Berube, whose party has signalled it will almost certainly vote in favour of the bill.
Interim Liberal Leader Pierre Arcand said Bill 21 "bothers a lot of people." He said Legault is mistaken if he thinks using closure will end the debate.
"I think it's unfortunate," Arcand said. "The bill will be adopted over the weekend without it having a lot of detail or without an understanding of how the law will be applied."
The Legault government is also forcing through Bill 9, which would give the government more authority to select who receives permanent residency in Quebec. The legislation allows the government to cancel roughly 18,000 pending applications for immigration to the province — something the Liberals oppose.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told reporters Friday the immigration changes are necessary because of the province's labour shortage. The government says the new rules will allow it to better select newcomers based on the needs of the labour market.