Quebec set to adopt secularism bill that bans religious symbols for state workers

QUEBEC — No political party would dare reopen Quebec's secularism bill once it becomes law, Premier Francois Legault predicted Sunday as his government moved to force passage of the contentious Bill 21 before the legislature broke for summer recess.

Legault and his party extended the session into the weekend and were expected to force a vote by late Sunday night or early Monday morning after applying the mechanism of closure to end debate on the bill prematurely.

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Their legislative majority will almost certainly ensure the bill is passed into law.

Bill 21 would prohibit public servants in positions of authority — including teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols on the job. Its opponents say the proposed law targets religious minorities while the government argues it affirms the Quebecois people's secular identity.

The legislation includes wording that preemptively invokes Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution. As a consequence, no citizen will be able to challenge the bill on grounds it violates fundamental freedoms granted by law.

A Section 33 declaration, however, needs to be renewed every five years. Legault told reporters earlier in the day his government is about to close a door no one would choose to reopen.

"My prediction," Legault said, "is that neither the Liberals, nor the Parti Quebecois — I don't think they'll be in power in five years — would want to change this law."

Liberal Helene David quickly contradicted him. The Opposition critic for secularism told reporters a Liberal government would not renew Section 33. "We will see in five years what we will do," she said. "There are strong chances we will want to repeal (the law)."

Bill 21 fulfills a major campaign promise by Legault's party. The premier has often said the legislation is a "compromise" because his party decided against including daycare workers or private school teachers in the bill. The legislation also grants certain public sector workers such as teachers an acquired right to continue wearing religious symbols if they were hired before the law took effect.

Bill 21 also forbids anyone giving or receiving a state service with their face covered — largely seen as a measure targeting full-face Islamic veils.

The Liberals offered an amendment that would have let university students studying to become state employees affected by the law, such as teachers or lawyers, to have an acquired right to continue wearing religious symbols.

The bill's sponsor, Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness, Simon Jolin-Barette, said no. The so-called grandfather clause "would only to apply to those already working."

Despite criticism from across the country by federal and provincial politicians, human rights advocates and many other groups, Legault's government has stayed united in its drive to adopt the legislation.

Legault and his ministers have proclaimed that the bill will go down in history alongside other major pieces of legislation affirming the Quebecois nation's values and way of life, such as the 1977 Charter of the French Language, known as Bill 101.

The premier said Friday the bill has allowed many Quebecers to regain a sense of pride. But Pierre Arcand, interim Liberal leader, said Sunday Legault's legacy will be "this botched bill, that can't be applied, that violates the rights of minorities. Mr. Premier, we will remember you for this."

Bill 21 was the second proposed law debated over the weekend. In a 62 to 42 vote, the government used its majority around 4 a.m. Sunday to push through Bill 9, which reforms the province's immigration system.

Jolin-Barrette's bill gives the province more authority over who receives permanent residency in the province. The government says the new selection criteria will permit it to fast-track newcomers who better meet the needs of employers. Applicants in the old system were selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

The bill is controversial because it creates a legal framework that allows the government to force newly arrived immigrants to pass a French-language and so-called values test before becoming eligible for permanent residency.

While specific wording on the two proposed tests isn't included in the bill, the legislation permits the province to institute the tests by way of regulation.

Also contentious is the provision in Bill 9 permitting the government to cancel roughly 18,000 immigration applications — some from people who have waited in limbo for years as their files languished under the old system. Those applicants will have to start the process over again.

Including the applicants' families, the fates of some 50,000 people wishing to immigrate to Quebec were at stake.

Opponents to the bill, including the provincial Liberals, said the Coalition Avenir Quebec government has provided "no credible explanation" to eliminate the applications.

The federation of Quebec's chambers of commerce saluted the bill's passing early Sunday.

"The concerted efforts of the government will lead to a better link between the skills of immigrants and those required for positions to fill in Quebec companies," the federation's president, Stephane Forget, said in a statement.

"These changes will have a very important impact to facilitate the recruitment of future employees ... and therefore, better integration of immigrants."

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