'Charter of Quebec Values' aims to restrict religious symbols

Policy would prohibit public employees from donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear in workplace

MONTREAL – Quebec has launched its next debate on minority accommodation — and this one could make the erstwhile soccer-turban ban look like a leisurely stroll on the pitch.

The government is preparing to introduce long-awaited legislation that would restrict religious symbols in numerous places.

A media report Tuesday with leaked details of the Parti Quebecois government’s “Charter of Quebec Values” says the proposed policy will prohibit public employees from donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear in the workplace.

It appears the PQ hopes to cash in at the ballot box by championing a position on secularism that polls have suggested has considerable support in the province.

The fiery debate that erupted over a recent ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields offered a sneak-peek of the what could be in the political pipeline for the national assembly’s fall session.

The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure — but not before it made headlines around the world. Inside Quebec, Premier Pauline Marois rushed to the defence of the soccer federation and accused its detractors of Quebec-bashing.

Tuesday’s newspaper report says the PQ government is set to prevent employees in public institutions like schools and hospitals from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, niqabs, kippas, hijabs and highly visible crucifixes.

The approach is being roundly condemned by civil-rights experts, including prominent lawyer Julius Grey, who expects any such legislation to face court challenges under the Charter of Rights.

“The type of secularism that is being promoted goes beyond what is acceptable,” he said in an interview.

“Now, it doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court will not uphold it. Legal decisions aren’t made in a vacuum and maybe our atmosphere, our social climate, is changing to the point where this will be the future. I hope not.”

Charles Taylor, a well-known academic who co-presided over Quebec’s commission on the accommodation of minorities, expressed outrage at the policy.

He told the French-language CBC that it’s one thing to ban a teacher from wearing a burka, because an impediment to clear face-to-face communication could have an impact on other people — namely, the students.

But he condemned a wall-to-wall, draconian approach.

“It’s unprecedented,” he told the TV network Tuesday.

“This will feed an attitude of exclusion. It will send a message to people who don’t feel comfortable here — who feel rejected in Quebec.”

He said immigrants repeatedly told him during his commission, which included province-wide tour, that the reason they came here was for freedom: “Now we’re slamming the door in their face.” In another interview, he compared the approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Quebec has, in fact, already struggled to retain its residents.

According to census data, the province has seen its demographic clout plummet within Canada as it bleeds residents to other provinces, year after year, and fails to keep up with the top immigration-attracting provinces.

Still, the PQ approach could prove popular.

Past opinion polls have suggested such policies enjoy broad public support with voters in Quebec. A majority have told pollsters they supported the turban ban and also viewed hijabs and kippas as a cultural threat.

What’s less clear is how the policy will hold up in the long term, in two key arenas: the court system, and the ballot box.

The PQ has in the past bluntly stated that it would gladly fight a legal battle up to the Supreme Court over the issue — and would hope to use the fight against Canadian institutions to stir up support for its main cause of independence.

But before getting there, there’s no guarantee the minority government could get the policy through the legislature or win an election on it.

As popular as the PQ’s approach might prove to be, other polls suggest that only a minuscule sliver of Quebec voters actually care about this as an election issue — and that what really drives the Quebec electorate are bread-and-butter issues like health care, education and the economy.

A Leger Marketing poll during last year’s election campaign listed immigrant integration as a top electoral priority for a paltry one per cent of respondents — at No. 15 on voters’ list of issues.

Other identity issues hardly fared better that poll. Sovereignty was the 10th most-commonly cited issue, and the protection of French was at No. 12.

Health care, by comparison, was the No. 1 issue, cited by 35 per cent of respondents when asked to choose their top two most-important issues. Lowering taxes, fighting corruption, school fees, creating jobs, trimming down the civil service and the environment were Nos. 2 to 6 on the minds of the 1,648 respondents to the online poll.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard reacted cooly Tuesday to the proposal, calling the details that were leaked to Le Journal de Montreal a “trial balloon.”

He said it was the PQ’s attempt to divert the public’s attention away from economic issues, which aren’t seen as the sovereigntist party’s strong suit.

-With files by Alexander Panetta