PQ gets backing of civil-servants' union for religion plan

QUEBEC – The Parti Quebecois’ controversial charter of values has received the staunch support of an influential backer: a union representing the province’s civil servants.

The SFPQ union, which has 42,000 members, applauds the government for “finally” tabling a policy that would ensure the religious neutrality of government offices.

The PQ plan would forbid Quebec’s public employees from wearing more visible religious symbols — including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-average crucifixes.

“We’re obliged to keep our political opinions to ourselves,” union president Lucie Martineau said Wednesday.

“We want that extended to our religious opinions.”

However, not all the union’s members appear to agree with the SFPQ’s stance and made their feelings known on the union’s website. A number of people complained in comments posted on the site that the members had not been consulted before the union took its position.

“My union wants to restrict the rights of its members?” wrote one man who identified himself as Alexandre and said he was disappointed. “I must be dreaming.”

Other unions have said they plan to consult members before taking a public position.

Martineau said that even if some employees wear the religious symbols, for now, she doesn’t expect anyone to be fired eventually. There hasn’t been a single complaint from an employee in the six years since the union began voicing its opinion on the topic, she said.

The plan would be the most sweeping of its kind in North America and its critics call it a bureaucratic mess, unconstitutional or, even worse, xenophobic. Its supporters insist it can work, in law and in practice, and be fair to Quebecers.

Premier Pauline Marois, in her first public comments since the plan’s release Tuesday, said she’s pleased. She welcomed the upcoming debate.

“I’m very proud of the charter, the proposal we issued,” she told reporters on her way into a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

“The debate is open now. People have the right to express themselves. It’s been on few a few hours, vigorously. But I hope the debate will be done as serenely as possible. Because I think we need to set clear guidelines for how we live together.”

As the premier walked away, reporters asked if she was concerned about Quebec’s reputation. When she kept walking, a couple simplified the question in the hope of getting her attention by shouting out “Quebec-bashing!” “Quebec-bashing!”

They got their quote from cabinet minister Pierre Duchesne.

“I’m a bit fed up with people in English Canada talking about extremism,” said Duchesne, the minister for higher education.

He said Quebec had made spectacular progress in escaping the clutches of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, and did so in a peaceful way, and didn’t need a scolding on the subject from English Canada.

He is not the first Pequiste to present the debate in binary terms — as a Quebec-vs-Canada issue.

However, a number of opinion columns in Montreal newspapers and complaints elsewhere suggest there are vigorous differences of opinion within Quebec society itself.

None of Montreal’s mayoral candidates supports the idea. A legendary nationalist singer, Michel Rivard, denounced it on Facebook.

Montreal La Presse also reported Wednesday that mayors of 15 Montreal-area municipalities also adopted a resolution in a meeting that they would ask for their communities to be exempt from the charter if it becomes law.

And two of the most prominent critics Wednesday were committed, longtime independentistes.

Federal MP Maria Mourani — who now represents one-fifth of the much-reduced Bloc Quebecois caucus — warned the charter would do “grave” damage to her cause.

She said the independence movement has spent years courting minority groups and this risks undoing all that work. She also blasted the religious-symbols plan on its own merits.

“This will create systemic discrimination… especially against women,” the Montreal MP told the French-language CBC news network.

She added: “This is a very bad move for Quebec independence.”

Meanwhile, Josee Legault, a political scientist, journalist, and former adviser to Parti Quebecois governments, wrote a lengthy blog post dissecting various aspects of the plan.

She bemoaned it as incoherent in every respect but one: the transparently electoral, “wedge-politics” motivations behind it.

“Kafka, meet Monty Python,” she wrote in her L’Actualite blog.

“Incoherence and absurdity join the arbitrary. Congratulations on your nice program.”

Quoting a recent column in Le Devoir, Legault also echoed the warning that perhaps the PQ’s short-term tactical gambit to win votes could undermine the long-term objective of independence.

As it stands, the plan in its current form stands little chance of passing the legislature because the party with the swing vote, the Coalition, has called it too radical. The Opposition Liberals are even more staunchly opposed.

That leaves open two obvious possibilities: that the plan will be watered down and passed under the current PQ minority government, or preserved intact and used in the next Parti Quebecois election platform.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard also weighed in Wednesday, making it clear his party wouldn’t support the charter.

Couillard accused the PQ of betraying the legacy of Rene Levesque, the late premier who co-founded the sovereigntist party.

“He (Levesque) said a society is judged partly by the way it treats its minorities,” he told a news conference in Quebec City.

“I think the days of open nationalism in this political party in power are over.”

Couillard urged the government to drop the proposal to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols.

Several different international news outlets, including the BBC and New York Times, have covered the release of the details of the plan.

Polls have suggested a majority of Quebecers support restricting minority accommodations. However, other polls suggest voters in the province place the issue relatively low on the list of political topics they care about.

The government says its so-called secularism charter will be the subject of public consultations, then presented as a bill to the legislature this fall.

Some members of religious minority groups have promised to fight the plan or leave Quebec, as the mayor of Calgary and government of Ontario have invited them to do with the promise they’d be welcomed with open arms there.

Scores of mostly Montreal personalities have also signed an open letter slamming the plan. A Muslim group plans a protest Saturday.

Adil Charkaoui, a spokesman for the Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia, said Wednesday that several thousand people have already indicated on Facebook they will join the demonstration against the government’s plan.

He said he expects about 20,000 people to take part, including members of the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities as well as nurses, teachers and daycare workers.

“It will be a family protest,” Charkaoui said. “And we are sure that we are going to send a very strong message to Madame Marois that she cannot force people to forget their roots, their religion, their beliefs.”

Charkaoui, a 40-year-old father of four, was arrested in 2003 and accused by Ottawa of being a terrorist. In 2009, a security certificate against the Moroccan-born Montrealer was declared null and void.

Charkaoui spent more than six years under suspicion of being an al-Qaida sleeper agent, spent 21 months in jail and had to wear an electronic GPS-bracelet.

The charter does have its supporters — including within minority groups. One group, comprising small-l liberal North African Arabs, expressed support for a secularism plan even before it was tabled.

-With files from Alexander Panetta and Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal and Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City