TROIS-RIVIERES, - Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois is prepared to invoke the rarely used notwithstanding clause to ensure her party's controversial secular charter is adopted.
Marois said Monday she will reintroduce the values charter project as it currently stands if her party forms a majority government after next Monday's Quebec election.
And after stating for months the government was confident the secular charter could withstand any judicial challenge, Marois threatened to use the notwithstanding clause to immediately ward off the possibility of any legal threat.
The clause is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and allows Parliament or provinces to override the rights charter in order to adopt legislation. The exemption lasts five years.
Marois said the clause would simply be integrated into the values charter.
"We have different advice about the constitutionality of this charter," Marois said. "Some say yes, no problem, some say no. So I will not take any risks with this...If we need this clause, we will use this clause."
Marois's comments run contrary to a report in Montreal La Presse on Monday, which cited a source who said the PQ's plan was to push through the charter without using the clause. That source told the paper an eventual loss in the courts on the charter issue would be used to jolt the sovereignty movement.
The proposed legislation would ban all public-sector employees, including teachers and daycare workers, from displaying or wearing religious symbols such as the hijab or the kippa. Marois said it would remain largely as is if the PQ returns to power.
The charter is a key plank in the PQ platform and is popular with many small-c conservatives — a segment of the electorate that could determine the fate of many ridings targeted by the PQ in its push for a majority.
Marois again defended the charter on Monday and denied she was leading a fear campaign.
"It's a preventive measure that we're taking by adopting a charter that clearly spells out the rules of the game and leaves no doubt among the population," Marois said in Trois-Rivieres.
Legal challenges against the charter are already looming because the federal government and other groups have said they will take whatever action is necessary to thwart the legislation.
The PQ has never released details of the legal opinions it has received saying it is on safe legal ground with the secular charter. Many people have said they believe it would infringe on the freedom of expression of the state employees it is targeting.
The notwithstanding clause has only been used by four provinces since its inception.
The most famous case involved Quebec in 1988 after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a provision of the provincial language legislation that imposed a French-only commercial sign rule. The high court ruled that the law limited freedom of expression rights. Robert Bourassa's Liberal government then invoked the clause to override sections of both the Canadian and Quebec charters to ensure the law stood.
Marois denied she was trying to create fights with federal politicians just one week before the election.
Asked about Marois's comments as he attended an event in Ajax, Ont., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau replied that Quebecers want a stronger economy — not "divisive politics or a third referendum."
"I'm confident that's what we're going to see on April 7th," he said.
The charter debate also continued at another level after one prominent supporter made a splash Sunday while using the example of an apartment swimming pool to warn of the dangers of religious accommodation.
Janette Bertrand, the head of a pro-charter group known as the Janettes, argued the accommodation of religious minorities in everyday life threatens to erode the equality between men and women.
Imagine, Bertrand said, if two men come to a swimming pool in a Montreal apartment and are upset by the sight of women in the water.
"Well, suppose they leave, and go see the owner," said Bertrand, an 89-year-old former actress and journalist, emphasizing that the owner would be happy to have such "rich" McGill University students in the building.
"Then they ask, 'Well, can we have a day,' and they will pay... And then in a few months, it's them who have all the pool time.
"That's what will happen if there is no charter."
Marois has steadfastly refused to condemn or back her party away from Bertrand's comments. Marois said the longtime activist "spoke with her heart" about the equality of men and women and didn't go too far in her comments.
One of her senior party members offered a more measured response.
Jean-Francois Lisee, one of the party's star candidates in Montreal, defended the charter during a debate on Montreal radio station CJAD, but distanced himself from Bertrand's comments.
"I listened to these comments (Sunday)," Lisee said. "My reaction was that this was not the best quote of the campaign, this was not the best argument for the charter.
"But the woman is 89, so I'm going to cut her some slack."
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said Bertrand's comments smacked of "xenophobia," prompting Marois to ask him to apologize.
Couillard said the charter is an attempt at engineering a social crisis and that the PQ's ultimate goal is obvious: a sovereignty referendum.
"It is regrettable, questionable and indefensible to see, how to Madame Marois and the PQ, the end justifies the means," Couillard said in Quebec City, describing the move as "machiavellian."
The Liberal leader said the PQ charter is a political ploy that has nothing to do with Quebecers' identity.
"The goal was not to legislate on the so-called identity," Couillard said. "The goal was to create a big fight, a big division and build that in a truly machiavellian way toward a referendum."
The PQ has pushed to move the discussion to identity and language with just one week left in a campaign that has been dominated by talk about sovereignty and an independence referendum.
Quebec solidaire, a leftist sovereigntist party, said it's time to stop all the fear-mongering.
"I think we must stop scaring people," said Francoise David, co-spokesperson for Quebec solidaire. "This is not how we build a country nor is it how we contribute to the emancipation of women."
For his part, Coalition Leader Francois Legault said he wants to keep the focus on the economy in the final week of the campaign.
"I won't play Madame Marois's game by talking about the charter," Legault said in Quebec City. "I want to talk about the economy and I'm going to talk about the economy until April 7."
- with files from Melanie Marquis in Trois-Rivieres, Julien Arsenault and Etienne Fortin-Gauthier in Quebec City, and Diana Mehta in Ajax, Ont.
Follow (at)MelMarquis (at)JulienArsenault and (at)EtienneFG on Twitter.
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