Quebec has the right to legislate on secularism, because “provincial autonomy is constitutionally protected”, a professor and former minister testified Thursday at the trial where groups are trying to invalidate Law 21.
“In Quebec, collective choices have been made for the preservation and development of its identity. […] That’s the beauty of federalism [au Canada] which is there to accommodate specific identities and allow them to flourish, ”said constitutional expert Benoît Pelletier, professor of law at the University of Ottawa.
The latter was recognized Thursday as an expert in federalism in the context of the trial surrounding the Law on the secularism of the State, which is contested by several groups.
Among other things, it prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by judges, police officers, prosecutors, prison guards and teachers, in the course of their duties.
The former Liberal minister submitted a report to the Attorney General of Quebec on the political, philosophical and sociological foundations of Canadian federalism as well as its roots, standards and values.
In his testimony Thursday before Judge Marc-André Blanchard, Professor Pelletier notably explained the division of legislative powers and jurisdictions between the federal and provincial governments as well as the history behind the evolution of federalism.
However, according to him, this sharing gives the provinces a certain “autonomy” and “self-determination” in the policies that they want to put forward according to their identity.
“It would be wrong to see Canada as a vision that is homogeneous. There is national diversity. […] Respect for this autonomy is essential, ”said the professor.
Professor Pelletier also touched on the notion of the notwithstanding clause found in the Constitution.
It had been used by Quebec for the law on secularism, in order to prevent its validity from being challenged on the grounds that it would violate rights and freedoms guaranteed by the charters of rights.
“It is a measure of guarantee that Canadian federalism will not evolve in negation of the identity of Quebec, if the National Assembly considers it to be in danger”, maintained Benoît Pelletier.
His testimony was complicated by some objections from the many lawyers representing opponents of the law, who wanted to avoid the expert falling into legal interpretations that would fall on the judge when he rendered his decision.
♦ The trial surrounding the law on secularism continues Friday at the Montreal courthouse.