OTTAWA – It’s not often top Tory cabinet minister Jason Kenney reads from prepared notes, or cuts questions short on two of his favourite subjects — multiculturalism and religious freedom.
But Quebec’s proposed values charter appears to have the Conservative government choosing its words with care.
Kenney said Tuesday that should the legislation pass in Quebec, the federal Justice Department would study it for any potential violations of the constitutional right to freedom of religion, and mount a legal challenge if necessary.
“We are very concerned by any proposal that would limit the ability of Canadians to participate in our society, and that would affect the practice of their faith,” said Kenney.
“We are very concerned about any proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion, based their deepest convictions.”
Kenney did not expand on any specific criticisms that his government has with the proposal, taking a limited number of questions after delivering a statement. Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, who gave the government’s position in French, took no questions.
Similarly, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had little to say on Quebec’s proposal two weeks ago as he opened the government’s new Office of Religious Freedom — a program focused on protecting religious minorities abroad.
The Parti Quebecois’ charter would emphasize the separation of church and state in the province by banning the wearing of obvious religious symbols by public-sector workers.
Recent polls suggest a majority of Quebecers support the measures — a fact that would not go unnoticed by federal party leaders looking to feather their electoral beds before 2015.
But the support the Conservative party has painstakingly nurtured among Indo-Canadians and the Jewish community in particular makes the situation much more complex.
Over the years, the Conservative government has taken different approaches and positions to accommodating religious symbols and practices.
Three months ago, Kenney used the word “ridiculous” in reference to a ban on turbans by the Quebec Soccer Federation. In 2011, he criticized some Parti Quebecois members for supporting a ban on Sikhs wearing the kirpan — a ceremonial dagger — from entering the National Assembly.
In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected the notion that Canada is facing a crisis involving newcomers that don’t accept the nation’s values.
“I know there’s a popularly expressed view that immigrants come here and they should change to suit the country. I think they overwhelmingly do,” Harper said.
“But I think the fact is our country also consciously changes somewhat for new immigrants and new cultures, and I think that’s a successful model. I think it you look around the world for issues of immigration and cultural integration, Canada is as successful as any other country in this regard.”
But Harper’s government has also prohibited Muslim women from covering their faces while taking the oath of citizenship, a move that garnered support from certain Muslim-Canadian groups.
“Isolating and separating a group of Canadians or allowing that group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is completely counter to Canada’s commitment to openness and social cohesion,” Kenney said at the time.
In 2007, the Conservatives also pushed the idea of requiring Muslim women to show their faces when voting, and over time received the backing of all federal parties.
When Tory MP Stephen Blaney, now public safety minister, rekindled the effort to make the requirement a law in a private member’s bill, Kenney lent his support.
As immigration minister, Kenney also unveiled a new citizenship guide in 2009 that warned newcomers against “barbaric” cultural practices such as genital mutilation and honour killings that would result in criminal charges.
“It’s no secret that we’ve seen instances of culturally rooted abuse of women, so-called ‘honour killings,’ forced marriages, and spousal abuse, and even female genital mutilation,” Kenney said.
“We want to make sure that people understand that multiculturalism doesn’t create an excuse to engage in those barbaric cultural practices.”