It is a critical week for Quebec’s centre-right government and the two flagship pieces of legislation that are at the heart of its nationalist agenda.
Despite commanding a sizeable majority, the Coalition Avenir Québec is being forced by opposition parties to make some difficult choices about its proposals to reform the province’s immigration system (Bill 9) and restrict religious garments in the civil service (Bill 21).
The CAQ government has made it clear it wants both bills passed by Friday, when the legislature is scheduled to break for the summer.
But both are still at the clause-by-clause consideration phase of the legislative process.
That is when MNAs closely study the wording of a bill, and the opposition tries to extract concessions from the government in exchange for allowing the bill to move to the floor for a vote.
Given both bills are highly controversial, and sensing the government’s urgency to get them passed, the Liberals and Québec Solidaire haven’t been shy about using a fine-tooth comb in their committee work.
More than five hours have been spent debating one article of the immigration bill. And on Wednesday, more than an hour was spent going over just one phrase — “in fact and in appearance” — in the religious symbols bill.
The government’s chief whip, Simon Jolin-Barrette, voiced his frustration with the opposition last week, singling out the party the CAQ unseated in the fall election.
“We have to question the parliamentary work being done by the Liberal Party,” Jolin-Barrette said. “Quebecers wanted change and the Liberals are the party of the status quo.”
But Jolin-Barrette, who also holds the immigration portfolio, complicated his life by being the sponsor of both Bill 9 and Bill 21. He’s required to be on hand for the clause-by-clause reading of each bill in order to answer questions from the opposition.
Last week, the Liberal immigration critic, Dominique Anglade, showed up at a Bill 9 hearing saying she was ready to sit for seven hours to speed up its passage.
Yet Jolin-Barrette, she pointed out, was only available for two hours because he was also needed at the committee studying Bill 21.
“We can’t do the work, not because there isn’t enough time, but because there is only one person shouldering the burden,” Anglade said.
Time running out
However, time is running out in the sitting. And now Premier François Legault will have to decide what he is willing to sacrifice in order to have the pillars of his identity agenda in place by the summer.
Bill 9, the immigration bill, lays the groundwork for a Quebec values test, which aspiring newcomers to the province would have to pass in order to qualify for permanent residency. It also seeks to better align the immigrant-selection process with the needs of regional employers.
Businesses, though, are worried the new measures — along with cuts to immigration levels — will complicate their efforts to deal with Quebec’s growing labour shortage.
Bill 21, the religious symbols legislation, has proven even more controversial. It would ban public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers from wearing garments like the hijab or kippa while at work.
Minority groups, legal experts and even United Nations human rights monitors have expressed concern that Bill 21 will institutionalize discrimination.
Québec Solidaire, the province’s second-largest opposition party, estimates there is not enough time for both bills to be studied and voted on by Friday. The government will either have to extend the session or use closure, the party said.
Using closure comes with some serious political downsides. It is a controversial parliamentary tool that allows a majority government to shut down debate and force a vote on a bill.
If the CAQ invokes closures to pass Bill 21, it will undermine its claims that the legislation enjoys consensus support among Quebecers.
The bill drastically overhauls the province’s human rights charter. The charter has never been altered without the overwhelming support of government and opposition MNAs alike.
Ramming through changes to the charter in the face of such widespread opposition could damage its legitimacy.
Eating humble pie?
Of course, the other option for the CAQ is to show a little flexibility. It could, for instance, incorporate some of the amendments being proposed by the opposition, hoping that will speed up passage of the bills.
The major sticking point to date with Bill 9 is the values test. So far, Jolin-Barrette has provided few details about when in the immigration process the test would be given, or what questions it would ask.
“You want us to adopt a bill without having all the information?” Anglade asked, rhetorically.
The stakes surrounding Bill 21 are even higher for the province.
It enjoys the support of the Parti Québécois, but the Liberals and Québec Solidaire are dead-set against the proposed ban on religious symbols.
They believe it tramples on individual rights and will disproportionately affect Muslim women by limiting where they can work.
Hélène David, the Liberal critic for secularism, opened the clause-by-clause reading of Bill 21 by pleading with Jolin-Barrette to soften his position.
The bill has a grandfather clause for teachers who currently wear a religious symbol. They will be allowed to keep wearing it, as long as they don’t change schools or take a promotion.
David wants the CAQ to expand that clause, allowing teachers to retain the right to wear a religious symbol even if they change positions. She’s also hoping the CAQ will extend it to cover aspiring teachers already in an education program at university.
“I’m asking the minister for a little humanity on this,” she said during the hearings last week.
Barring a sudden change of heart by the government, the bills will pass sooner or later.
But by grinding them through the legislative machinery, the opposition can hope to achieve two things: strip the sheen off claims the bills represent a consensus, and limit the scope of legislation that threatens to unsettle minorities across the province.