Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister in charge of Quebec’s proposed religious symbols legislation, still believes the province is a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.
“Quebec society is an inclusive society, an open society to everybody who wants to come to Quebec and work here and choose Quebec. Quebec will always be open,” he told Global News.
“We all have to have a tone in this debate that is respectful. We have to, because it’s an emotional debate, stay calm.”
Over the weekend, Quebec Premier François Legault posted a video to Facebook saying the province has debated religious symbols for over a decade and it’s “about time a government put in place clear rules for everyone.”
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Soon after, right-wing group La Meute — which supports the bill — posted a photograph of the premier to its Facebook page.
Next to the photo are the closing remarks from the premier’s speech: “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit” — in Quebec, this is how we live.
“That kind of extremist group has no place in Quebec, and I am clear about that,” Jolin-Barrette argued.
“The government of Quebec has nothing to do with that kind of group. We fully banish what they are doing.”
Bill 21, titled An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, was tabled last Thursday, prohibiting public-sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
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The proposed legislation affects elementary and high school teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in what the government considers to be positions of authority.
“Only a few people in certain positions, certain jobs, they are not allowed to wear religious symbols. They have power,” Jolin-Barrette told Global News.
The bill has created much controversy over the last few months, and since its tabling, many organizations have come out opposing the bill, referring to it as discriminatory and divisive.
However, Jolin-Barrette insists the school boards will have to apply the bill once it is voted into law as it is part of the province’s democratic process.
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“I encourage school boards to look at the bill and come to the National Assembly to share their point of view,” he said.
Teachers, he argues, will be part of the bill even if the school boards say they won’t follow suit.
“They represent a figure of authority on the children, and the link between children and teachers is a special link,” he told Global News.
Included in the bill is a grandfather clause permitting current employees to continue wearing their religious symbols.
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“It has nothing to do with immigrants,” he said.
“It’s religion. All religions are on the same level. We’re making a clear separation between state and religion.”
The government said it would also propose a motion calling for the withdrawal of the crucifix from the provincial legislature.
“What we want is to show all Quebecers that we are also ready to make compromises on the grandfather clause, on the crucifix, in order to get as much support as possible because my goal is really to unite Quebecers,” insisted Legault.
The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) maintains the bill has widespread support from across the province.
Parliamentary hearings are expected to be organized in the next few months. The minister said he is open to listening to proposed “improvements.”