Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants Quebec premier-designate François Legault to think carefully before using the notwithstanding clause to prevent Quebecers in positions of authority — such as police officers and teachers — from wearing religious symbols at work.
The day after winning Monday’s election, Legault vowed to use the powerful constitutional clause, if necessary, to uphold a proposal to prohibit some state employees from wearing religious symbols, including garments like the Jewish kippa and Muslim hijab.
Legault insisted the proposed ban is important enough to invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, which would override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But Trudeau said Wednesday that the clause should be reserved for “exceptional circumstances” and only deployed after lots of deep reflection about the consequences.
“It’s not something that should be done lightly because to remove or avoid defending the fundamental rights of Canadians, I think it’s something with which you have to pay careful attention,” Trudeau said.
“As you know very well, I’m not of the opinion that the state should be able to tell a woman what she can wear, nor what she cannot wear. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is there to protect our rights and our freedom.”
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Legault’s centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec won a convincing majority mandate in the provincial election after promising voters it would carve out more autonomy for the province.
His rise to power appears destined to create fresh conflicts between Quebec and Ottawa.
In reaffirming his position Tuesday, Legault said he believes most Quebecers want to have a framework in place to prevent people in authority positions from wearing religious symbols.
“If we have to use the notwithstanding clause to apply what the majority of Quebecers want, we will do so,” he said.
The clause gives provincial legislatures and Parliament the ability to bring in legislation that circumvents certain provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for a five-year period.
Ford also vowed to use notwithstanding cause
Even though it’s a rarely used clause, Quebec has become the second provincial government to threaten to invoke it in recent weeks.
Shortly after winning a June election, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he would use the notwithstanding clause to slash the size of Toronto’s city council.
In the end, Ford didn’t have to use the clause because Ontario’s top court sided with his government in the legal battle over his controversial plan. Had he proceeded, it would have been the first time the clause was used in Ontario.
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Last month, Trudeau made it clear he wouldn’t try to block Ford’s move even though he was disappointed with the premier’s decision.
On Wednesday, the prime minister brought up Ontario when asked about Legault.
“Clearly, the use of the notwithstanding clause, like I said in the case of Ontario, should not be done except in exceptional circumstances and after lots of reflection and lots of deep consideration of the consequences,” he said.