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Quebec Minister for International Relations and Montreal, Jean-François Lisée, speaks to reporters at a news conference about the government's proposed Charter of Values Tuesday, September 17, 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Minister for International Relations and Montreal, Jean-François Lisée, speaks to reporters at a news conference about the government's proposed Charter of Values Tuesday, September 17, 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Montreal exemption from secular charter can't last forever, PQ warns Add to ...

Quebec’s minority government has settled in for an extended fight over a plan to ban religious garments and too-visible jewellery among public-sector employees, squelching talk of quick compromise and warning Montreal there will be no easy exit from the law.

Jean-François Lisée, the minister in charge of Quebec’s biggest and most ethnically diverse city, said Wednesday that Montreal will not be able to indefinitely extend a five-year exemption clause planned for the PQ’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

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All city and suburban mayors on the island of Montreal, along with the leaders of several prominent institutions, have come out against the charter. Some of them have said they would use the opt-out clause as a permanent escape hatch to avoid forcing their employees to choose between their jobs and their religious convictions.

Mr. Lisée nixed that idea.

“We conceived of the exemption clause as a way to allow municipalities or hospitals with a particularly unique character, anchored in a religious community, for example, to have a period of transition that is more gentle, and longer,” Mr. Lisée told reporters. “It was not intended so an entire region could exclude itself.”

The Parti Québécois government, which rules with a minority of seats in the National Assembly, has given mixed signals on its willingness to alter the charter, which contains popular guidelines on how religious minorities should be accommodated in the province, but also the highly divisive dress code.

Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of drafting the legislation, took a conciliatory tone Wednesday, saying he was heartened by the olive branch extended by François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the party that holds the balance of power. But, he added, the time to amend the law to try to gain passage will be weeks from now, when draft legislation is introduced.

Mr. Lisée took a harder line, saying it was time to “have the guts to decide” on how far Quebec should go to accommodate religious minorities. He said the PQ is open to improving the law, but went on to suggest the plan could be tightened rather than softened. Mr. Lisée said there is no question of diluting the charter, which he hopes will solve the riddle of religious accommodation in Quebec for years to come.

On Montreal island, where most of Quebec’s religious minorities live, civic leaders against the charter are calling on the PQ to abandon the dress code plan.

“We define Montreal by its diversity, it’s a matter of great pride, and I’ll fight to protect it. Integration doesn’t have to mean uniformity,” said Denis Coderre, one a small group of leading candidates for Montreal’s mayoral election in November.

A former federal immigration minister, Mr. Coderre derided the discussion of Quebec values. “Whose values? What heritage? The first Jew was elected in Quebec in 1807. The Lebanese started coming in the 18th century. How do you define heritage?”

He stopped short of threatening legal action: “Frankly, I think there will be a lot of [legal action], so I don’t think we’ll need to spend any money there.”

The Jewish General Hospital declared the plan, including the exemption, unworkable. Many doctors move among several hospitals and universities in a week. Some would likely have an exemption, while others would not.

McGill principal Suzanne Fortier has said the university would use the exemption if necessary, but added in a statement that the charter’s dress restrictions go against McGill’s aim of “not only respecting but actively promoting cultural diversity.”

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