Scowl or shrug? Federal ministers react differently on Quebec values charter

OTTAWA – The Conservative cabinet appears to have two different sets of talking points on the controversial Quebec charter — some typed up in boldface, and others in a tiny footnote font.

Over the last two weeks, federal ministers have been asked to react to the Parti Quebecois’ proposal to limit conspicuous signs of religion in the public sector, including Sikh turbans or the hijabs that Muslim women wear.

The core response has been that Ottawa will study the final product, and determine whether it violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Beyond that, however, the answers have been curiously distinct.

While initially more cautious, Employment Minister Jason Kenney — whose new Twitter profile picture features him, head covered, outside a Sikh temple in India — has used progressively sharper language to describe the charter.

“When Quebecers begin to actually contemplate the idea that provincial bureaucrats might be getting out a tape measure to measure the size of people’s crosses, to see whether or not their earring is too obviously religious — this gets to a point of almost Monty Python-esque absurdity,” he told CTV’s Question Period.

Multiculturalism Minister Tim Uppal has called the charter “extremely concerning,” and delved into specifics about what bothers him about the bill.

“How could somebody tell their child who’s going through school in Quebec, as Quebecers … born and raised in this country, that they cannot dream to be a teacher, a doctor, or work in the civil service because of their faith,” Uppal said earlier this month during an appearance on Saskatoon radio station CKOM.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flatly said he doesn’t see the charter going anywhere in its current form.

By contrast, senior Quebec ministers have seemed reluctant to criticize the charter, or wade too deeply into the debate, saying they don’t want to give Quebec Premier Pauline Marois what she wants — an Ottawa-Quebec City fight.

“There’s nothing that upsets me in there,” Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

He repeatedly referred to the fact Ottawa would respect Quebec’s jurisdiction and its democratic prerogative to consult Quebecers on the project. He said he didn’t want to get into the debate, especially before the National Assembly votes.

“Anything that would be said today on the current situation would be much too early for me,” he said.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney at first refused to take questions from reporters on the issue two weeks ago. When he finally did provide a comment, it was to say that he was letting provincial politicians sort it out.

“I’m the MP for Levis-Bellechasse-Etchemins,” Blaney said. “I have two provincial members right now who will consider the bill and I trust them to represent the views of the people of (the riding) in the National Assembly.”

Both Lebel and Blaney come from predominantly francophone ridings — territory where support for the charter is believed to be the highest.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made the same sort of wait-and-see remarks after the first leaks about the charter, saying he would prefer to see what the final version of the legislation looks like.

But after the PQ government officially unveiled the details, Mulcair openly criticized the project as “state-mandated discrimination.”

Even within the NDP, however, there have been different perspectives on the charter.

MP Francois Pilon told Radio-Canada that he supported the idea of limiting religious symbols in public jobs.

“If a person wants to keep their headscarf, well there are other careers that she can pursue, it’s up to her to decide,” he said.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.