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Quebec's new government putting up barriers to cultural diversity and ignoring the environment

Francois Legault/Twitter

Quebec's new provincial government, formed for the first time by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) under the leadership of Premier François Legault, brings with it a new approach that proposes to shift the way the province manages immigration, deals with minority religious groups, represents Montreal and addresses climate change.

These changes were outlined during the campaign.

The shift that has received the most attention so far deals with religious symbols, a matter that Legault said he will handle himself. The new government aims to restrict all public employees in a position of authority -- judges, law enforcement officers, correctional employees and teachers -- from wearing religious symbols.

The move is based, Legault has said, on the need to separate religion and the state.

On October 3, new deputy premier Geneviève Guilbault announced that public officials would have a choice of removing their religious symbols or finding another job elsewhere in the public service.

But the current numbers of Quebec judges, police and correctional officers wearing religious symbols is practically nil and there are very few teachers who were such symbols. CAQ has created a problem where there is none, purely for opportunistic electoral reasons to target the xenophobic vote.

For teachers, imagine the implications in schools where some students wear headscarves while teachers who would want to wear the same, cannot. The message here is that it is legitimate to discriminate and have prejudices regarding such "aliens."

The irony is that the Quebec government heavily subsidizes religious private schools where teachers wearing religious symbols would be exempt – because they are not public institutions.

The leader of the opposition at Montreal city hall, Lionel Perez, wears a kippa and, to my knowledge, no one has criticized the neutrality of city council and the sky hasn't fallen. In a meeting with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, Legault said elected officials would be exempt, a necessary position to avoid a head-on collision with Montreal.

If a public institution is truly secular, it recognizes that a handful of individuals would not get away with imposing their beliefs on Quebec institutions and would, therefore, pose no threat to the neutrality of these institutions. Neutrality also means no discrimination based an individual's private beliefs. In an open letter to Le Devoir, several Quebec jurists have substantiated this.

The likelihood is that the CAQ legislation would be struck down by the courts, to which the government would use the notwithstanding clause. The litigation will take years, possibly beyond the current government mandate.

Reducing number of immigrants

The new government also wants to reduced the number of immigrants to the province from 52,338 in 2017 to 40,000 a year, a drop of 24 per cent. This would be done, the CAQ argues, to facilitate the integration of immigrants in Quebec, a move the party claims is supported by a majority of Québécois. They also claim 26 per cent of new immigrants end up leaving the province.

Two things are wrong with this line of reasoning.

Quebec has a crisis-level shortage of employees to fill vacant positions. La Chambre de commerce de Montréal has been vigorously defending an increase in the numbers of immigrants to address this impediment to economic growth. The Chambre wants the quota to be increased to 60,000 immigrants per year.

As for the percentage of immigrants who leave the Québec, it is about the same percentage as those leaving the province of arrival in the rest of Canada.

During the election campaign Legault said new immigrants would be given French language competency evaluations three years after their arrival. Those who fail, would be deported. The problem is that only the federal government has the authority to deport immigrants.

Legault eventually softened this position, and now suggest those who fail the test would be allowed to remain in Quebec but would lose their selection certificates for which they would have to apply again in order to become citizens.

In promoting these policies, Legault has capitalized on the wide-spread myths among francophone Quebecers that immigrants do not readily learn French. This myth implies that accepting too many immigrants would ultimately shift the linguistic balance in Montreal in favour of English, which, in turn, would threaten French language survival for the entire province.

In making his pitch, Legault noted that 75 per cent of Quebec immigrants establish themselves in Montreal and claimed that 59 per cent of them cannot speak French three years after their arrival. This is a wilful half-truth.

The stats tell a different story: 90.5 per cent of economic immigrants, 77.1 per cent of family reunification immigrants and 84.3 per cent of refugees are able to speak French 10 years after their respective arrivals.

But facts don't count when the issue is top priority. Legault raised the matter of a transfer of authority on immigration at his first public meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Oct. 11 at the Sommet de l'Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. At this meeting, Legault requested a transfer of federal authority for matters concerning immigrant family reunions.

Climate change not a top priority

On climate change, the CAQ essentially ignored climate change in its election campaign and proposed the expansion and prolongation of highways, thus contributing to urban sprawl. But in his first speech after his cabinet was sworn in, Legault said he had heard the voices of the electors on the importance of environmental issues. Although, he added the caveat that the CAQ would be pragmatic.

At this very same event, the new minister of Transport, François Bonnardel, said he has heard the voices of motorists and will respond to their needs. This statement totally discredits Legault's claim.

Fittingly, Legault and his new Environment minister, Marie-Chantal Chassé, hesitated on a decision to attend the United Nations COP24 climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, December 3-14. Pressure placed on them to attend by the opposition parties and environmental organizations resulted in a change of position. Now, Chassé will attend, but not the premier. Legault's absence represents a departure from past Quebec government delegations to COP meetings.

In addition, Legault does not exclude fracking and opposes a ban on internal-combustion vehicles by a specified deadline, unlike Norway (2025), India (2030) and the Netherlands (2030). An announcement from China on this subject is also expected (probable target 2030).

The "icing on the cake" on how CAQ views environmental challenges is reflected by the statement of the MNA Nadine Girault, who said a CAQ government would approve a snowmobile trail through Mont-Tremblant provincial park.

The hypocrisy

The crucifix hanging in the National Assembly will remain in place because it is a heritage symbol. Christmas parties and Christmas trees with angels on top will likely be tolerated in government and public work spaces, while public transportation projects, like extending the planned electric train service to the North and South Shores and extending the métro blue line eastwards, are on the long-term horizon, over the next 10 years, after the next election.

Photo: François Legault/Twitter

Will Dubitsky is a resident of Quebec. A former federal government employee who focused on sustainable development policies, legislation, programs and project. He is currently a blogger on global and Canadian green economy matters and active in environmental causes.

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