In Quebec visit O'Toole says he supports provincial autonomy, including ban on religious symbols
MONTREAL -- Conservative leader Erin O'Toole said Monday, during his first official visit to Quebec as opposition leader, that he supports the province's religious symbols law and would do so as prime minister.
"We talked about... issues of Quebec identity," O'Toole said, in French, in a Montreal press conference after a one-on-one meeting with Quebec Premier François Legault.
"It's a priority for me personally," he said in response to a reporter's question.
The two discussed Bill 101, which governs the use of French in Quebec, as well as Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols, such as hijabs and turbans, by certain public-service workers.
"We must respect [Quebec efforts] to protect secularism and the French language," O'Toole said while responding in French. "That's a priority for me as leader of the opposition."
Bill 21 was passed into law last year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed the federal Liberals' opposition to the bill and said last year that he's not ruling out intervening.
In English, O'Toole later added that he places a premium on provincial independence.
"We have a national unity crisis at the moment, particularly in western Canada...and we need a government in Ottawa that respects provincial autonomy," he said.
"Personally, I served in the military with Sikhs and other people, so I understand why it's a difficult question, but as a leader you have to respect our constitution and the partnerships we need to have in Canada, and focus on what we can do together."
He also said he was open to the Legault government's recent proposition to enlarge the scope of language law Bill 101 by applying it to a new group of businesses -- those that are federally regulated and have operations in Quebec, such as railways, broadcasters and banks.
Bill 101 was the legislation that declared French the sole official language in Quebec. Under it, businesses in Quebec with at least 50 employees must use French as their working language. It doesn't apply to federally regulated businesses.
The only way to make the change is with a federal amendment.
The meeting on Monday was O'Toole's first time sitting down with a premier since his election as party leader, a fact he was quick to point out in both languages.
It's followed by a private fundraising lunch hosted by Claude Thibault of the Montreal Economic Institute, with suggested donations of $1,000 per attendee.
Conservatives are struggling in Quebec, with a particular current problem of name recognition for O'Toole. A recent Nanos poll on support for the new leader found that Quebecers had the lowest support in the country, with 27.7 saying they were open or somewhat open to voting for him.
O'Toole also told reporters that another top priority was being ready to work with Legault in case of a second wave of COVID-19, saying that he was particularly concerned about the elderly.
He said Trudeau's response to the first wave was "slow and naive" and criticized the Liberals for not taking stronger or faster action on the border, and especially leaving flights between China and Canada in place.
When asked about pipelines, O'Toole said they're important for Canada's jobs and economy, repeating several times that the priority right now should be to create jobs and encourage economic growth in all rural areas.
"Trans Mountain is important," he said.
But he acknowledged that Quebec voters have their concerns and said he accepts that the Energy East pipeline is "not on the table."
He and Legault "talked about natural resources and the importance of the environment to Quebecers," he said.
When asked about his strategy to win over more Quebec voters, O'Toole said he has surprised people before and that there are more Quebecers ready to vote Conservative than it may seem.
"I'm a new leader that's here to listen," he said. "We will surprise people in the next election."
Quebec voters, he said, also "want a serious prime minister after four years of selfies and an image-based prime minister."
He also called Montreal his "hometown" at one point -- though he noted that he was only born in the city before growing up in Ontario.