The Parti Quebecois government has confirmed that it intends to move forward with a controversial plan on minority accommodation.
It had remained silent the first two days after a newspaper reported that public employees in schools, hospitals and other government offices will be barred from wearing religious clothing.
The details were not entirely surprising — the PQ had previously promised to put forward such a plan in its last election platform and in its subsequent inaugural speech in the legislature.
Past polls have suggested such a plan would be popular in Quebec but the newly leaked details have drawn a furious reaction from some pundits, members of affected minority groups, and a small number of federal politicians.
Today the provincial government is holding a cabinet meeting in Quebec City and its members are being asked by reporters to comment on the purported plan.
Premier Pauline Marois would not confirm the specific details. However, in the same breath, she confirmed to reporters that legislation is coming.
“Let’s wait for the legislation to be tabled before commenting,” she said, while walking into the cabinet meeting.
Some of her ministers were slightly more volube.
Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the file, and Jean-Francois Lisee said the plan is responding to popular demand.
“These proposals are very balanced,” Drainville said.
“It’s a good balance between respect for individual rights and the respect of Quebecers’ common values.”
He said the government will put forward a discussion paper, seek to build a consensus, then table a bill and negotiate with other political parties in the legislature.
It’s unclear such a plan could be adopted in the current minority legislature, or whether it would remain an unresolved issue in the next election campaign.
The PQ would need support from at least one major opposition party and the key swing votes in the debate could belong to the Coalition Avenir Quebec.
The CAQ has said it will seek a middle-ground approach between the PQ and the more laissez-faire attitude of the Liberals.
Critics of the Liberals, the former governing party, accuse them of failing to respond to a popular demand for clear guidelines on religious accommodation within state institutions.
The new Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard, has said guidelines for administrators could be a good idea but has otherwise been extremely critical of the PQ idea.
Couillard made a reference to the plan again Thursday as he announced his intention to seek a seat in the next election in his home riding of Roberval.
He ascribed the desire to run in a sparsely populated area, and not in a Montreal byelection, to wanting his party to succeed everywhere in Quebec and not feed into any “us-against-them” stereotypes.
The plan has also angered several medical professionals and day-care workers, who say they will never allow the government to dictate what they wear and some have said they would rather leave Quebec.
Few federal politicians have weighed in.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has blasted the plan and raised his concerns about it this week in a meeting with Marois.
The Prime Minister’s Office has called it a matter for provincial politicians to decide, but multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney has since weighed and condemned the idea.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said he won’t comment yet until he sees an official plan — adding that he won’t comment on a “trial balloon.”