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Quebec adopts secularism bill that bans religious symbols for state workers

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Quebec’s contentious secularism bill banning religious symbols for teachers, police officers and other public servants in positions of authority was voted into law late Sunday.

Premier Francois Legault’s government used its majority to push through Bill 21 by a vote of 73 to 35 after applying the mechanism of closure to end debate on the bill prematurely. The Parti Quebecois also voted in favour, while the Liberals and Quebec solidaire were opposed.

The bill prohibits public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job. Its opponents say the law targets religious minorities while the government argues it affirms the Quebecois people’s secular identity.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government introduced last-minute amendments toughening the law, making provisions for a minister to verify that it is being obeyed and to demand corrective measures if necessary.

Liberal member Marc Tanguay said the changes would result in a “secularism police.”

Just before the final vote, the bill’s sponsor, Simon Jolin-Barrette, minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, asked all legislators to “convey the principles of state secularism with calm and respect.”

The legislation includes wording that preemptively invokes Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution. As a consequence, no citizen will be able to challenge the bill on grounds it violates fundamental freedoms granted by law.

A Section 33 declaration, however, needs to be renewed every five years. Legault told reporters earlier in the day his government was closing a door that no one would choose to reopen.

“My prediction,” he said, “is that neither the Liberals, nor the Parti Quebecois — I don’t think they’ll be in power in five years — would want to change this law.”

Liberal Helene David quickly contradicted him. The Opposition critic for secularism told reporters a Liberal government would not renew Section 33. “We will see in five years what we will do,” she said. “There are strong chances we will want to repeal (the law).”

Bill 21 fulfills a major campaign promise by Legault’s party. The premier has often said the legislation is a “compromise” because his party decided against including daycare workers or private school teachers in the bill. The legislation also grants certain public sector workers such as teachers an acquired right to continue wearing religious symbols if they were hired before the law took effect.

Bill 21 also forbids anyone giving or receiving a state service with their face covered — largely seen as a measure targeting full-face Islamic veils.

The Liberals offered an amendment that would have let university students studying to become state employees affected by the law, such as teachers or lawyers, to have an acquired right to continue wearing religious symbols.

Jolin-Barette, said no. The so-called grandfather clause “would only to apply to those already working.”

Despite criticism from across the country by federal and provincial politicians, human rights advocates and many other groups, Legault’s government has stayed united in its drive to adopt the legislation.

Legault and his ministers have proclaimed that the bill will go down in history alongside other major pieces of legislation affirming the Quebecois nation’s values and way of life, such as the 1977 Charter of the French Language, known as Bill 101.

The premier said Friday the bill has allowed many Quebecers to regain a sense of pride. But Pierre Arcand, interim Liberal leader, said Sunday Legault’s legacy will be “this botched bill, that can’t be applied, that violates the rights of minorities. Mr. Premier, we will remember you for this.”

Bill 21 was the second law debated and passed over the weekend. In a 62 to 42 vote, the government used its majority around 4 a.m. Sunday to push through Bill 9, which reforms the province’s immigration system.

Jolin-Barrette’s bill gives the province more authority over who receives permanent residency in the province. The government says the new selection criteria will permit it to fast-track newcomers who better meet the needs of employers. Applicants in the old system were selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

The bill is controversial because it creates a legal framework that allows the government to force newly arrived immigrants to pass a French-language and so-called values test before becoming eligible for permanent residency.

While specific wording on the two proposed tests isn’t included in the bill, the legislation permits the province to institute the tests by way of regulation.

Also contentious is the provision in Bill 9 permitting the government to cancel roughly 18,000 immigration applications — some from people who have waited in limbo for years as their files languished under the old system. Those applicants will have to start the process over again.

Including the applicants’ families, the fates of some 50,000 people wishing to immigrate to Quebec were at stake.

Opponents to the bill, including the provincial Liberals, said the Coalition Avenir Quebec government has provided “no credible explanation” to eliminate the applications.

The federation of Quebec’s chambers of commerce saluted the bill’s passing early Sunday.

“The concerted efforts of the government will lead to a better link between the skills of immigrants and those required for positions to fill in Quebec companies,” the federation’s president, Stephane Forget, said in a statement.

“These changes will have a very important impact to facilitate the recruitment of future employees … and therefore, better integration of immigrants.”

The Canadian Press


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RCMP plane chases fleeing helicopter as part of major cross-border drug bust

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PENTICTON, B.C. — RCMP east of Vancouver were involved in a cross-border drug bust this summer that involved nearly 300 kilograms of meth, more than 100 guns and an aerial chase between a police plane and a helicopter.

Details of the bust are in paperwork filed at the Penticton Law Courts to support multiple search warrants for a property near Chilliwack, B.C., where a helicopter at the centre of the chase is alleged to have landed with an RCMP plane on its tail.

Documents filed on behalf of the RCMP Federal Serious and Organized Crime Section in Osoyoos say the office was alerted in early June by U.S. Homeland Security about a planned cross-border drug deal involving nearly 200 kilograms of methamphetamine.

U.S. officials staked out a landing site in Washington state about 110 kilometres south of Princeton, B.C., where they believed the drugs would be transferred to Canadian buyers. Something spooked the pilot of the helicopter, and it fled north into Canadian airspace.

Two men who tried to leave the landing site in Washington were arrested by U.S. agents who seized 188 kilograms of methamphetamine.

In Canadian skies, an RCMP plane was patrolling near Princeton hoping to intercept the unmarked, black helicopter. Mounties spotted it in a shadowy landing site on a remote mountainside in E.C. Manning Provincial Park.

The helicopter lifted off and headed west.

The chase was on.

“The helicopter took deliberate evasive action, attempting to lose surveillance,” the documents say. “The helicopter flew at very low altitudes, near the tops of trees and up narrow draws. It repeatedly changed direction, and made rapid ascents up towards the mountains.

“The helicopter varied its speed in an attempt to outrun the RCMP aircraft, and slowed down to have the RCMP aircraft overtake it.”

The dogfight continued for 45 minutes, the documents say. On two occasions, the chopper pilot tried to lure the RCMP aircraft to a lower altitude and then rapidly ascended, in a vain effort to shake the pursuers.

The helicopter eventually landed at a rural property near Chilliwack.

The court documents say searches of that property turned up 72 long guns, 35 handguns, ammunition, cellphone jammers, U.S. government helicopter decals, drones and currency from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

RCMP have not said if anyone has been charged and referred a request for comment to Homeland Security.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Tanya Roman said the investigation turned up an additional 84 kilograms of drugs, bringing the total amount of drugs seized to 272 kilograms.

“This sizable amount is indicative of the possible involvement of a large and sophisticated smuggling organization,” she said in a statement.

“Due to the ongoing investigation and law enforcement sensitivities, we are unable to provide further comment at this time.”

Authorities believe the pilot was one of two men arrested at the Chilliwack-area property.

The Canadian Civil Aircraft Registry shows the helicopter’s registration was cancelled last May. (Penticton Herald)

Joe Fries, Penticton Herald, The Canadian Press

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Third-party buys billboard to promote Bernier’s anti-mass immigration stance

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maxine bernier billboard

OTTAWA — Billboards with Maxime Bernier’s face and a slogan advocating against mass immigration cropped up Friday in several major Canadian cities.

The ads, which were seen in Halifax, Regina and Vancouver, prompt people to vote for the People’s Party of Canada and read “Say NO to Mass Immigration.”

A third-party advertising group, True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., paid for the billboards.

According to a filing with Elections Canada, the third-party group is run by Frank Smeenk, the chief executive of a Toronto-based mining exploration company.

The group filed interim financial returns with Elections Canada that show it spent $59,890 on billboards in “select cities in Canada” and received $60,000 from Bassett & Walker International Inc., a company that specializes in the international trade of protein products.

Earlier this week, Smeenk declined to comment on the billboard beyond what appeared in the Elections Canada filing. The Canadian Press attempted to reach Smeenk again on Friday, but he did not respond.

Similarly, messages left at Bassett & Walker were not returned.

The People’s Party of Canada also did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but it said in a statement to other media it is not associated with the group that has put up the billboards and that they had not been in contact with the third party.

Bernier has advocated lower immigration to somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 people per year, much lower than the current target of 330,800 for 2019 set by the federal government. He’s also said he would impose a values test on people trying to immigrate to Canada.

Local politicians in Halifax weighed in as images of the billboards spread Friday.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said on Twitter, “I welcome everyone to Nova Scotia — but I don’t welcome this negative, divisive tone.”

Local Liberal MP Andy Fillmore was more direct: “How about no to Maxime Bernier, instead,” he wrote. “There’s no place in Nova scotia for the PPC’s politics of fear (and) division.”

The purchase by the True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. is the latest is a series of ad buys from third-party groups.

Before the start of the pre-election period June 30, several groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV advertising, notably during the NBA Finals.

Earlier in the summer, other billboards targeting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale popped up in his Regina riding, also the product of a third-party group, the Canada Growth Council.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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