Quebec charter pitch exposes deep split within feminist ranks

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois responds to Opposition questions as the legislature resumes for its fall session Tuesday, September 17, 2013, at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Another move by the Parti Québécois government to squelch dissent over its plan to limit religious dress in the public service is revealing more deep division in Quebec society, this time among feminists.

Julie Miville-Dechêne, president of the Council for the Status of Women, accused the minority government of Premier Pauline Marois of stacking the advisory body this week with four women who favour the proposed Charter of Quebec Values. Ms. Miville-Dechêne said the arm’s-length feminist organization had been split on the government’s plan to ban head scarves, turbans and other religious garments from publicly funded workplaces. She accused the government of trying to bring the council in line.

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The government “was trying to dictate a message, certainly. The message was: ‘Our point of view must be defended. Accept our secularist plan, here is the way,’ ” Ms. Miville-Dechêne told a Radio-Canada news program Thursday.

Ms. Miville-Dechêne was critical of the plan, citing a lack of evidence it is necessary and the risk it will drive religious women out of the work force.

Agnès Maltais, the minister in charge of women’s issues, said Friday that there has been “no pressure” on Ms. Miville-Dechêne to fall into line, and that the four new appointees are perfectly qualified for their positions. She did concede she had a “very difficult” conversation with Ms. Miville-Dechêne on whether a hijab ban is good for women.

Two weeks after the Parti Québécois government unveiled the values plan and invited Quebeckers to engage in a civilized discussion, the province is divided and the government has squelched dissent and been reluctant to face questions. The government maintains imposed secularism, including a ban on highly visible religious symbols, is a way to ensure equality for Quebeckers in the workplace and while obtaining government services.

Government ministers, who were in Montreal on Friday to announce a $1.5-billion mega-project to build six kilometres of subway extension to PQ-friendly areas of Montreal, refused to answer questions about the charter.

Last week, Maria Mourani, an MP with the PQ’s federal counterpart, the Bloc Québécois, was abruptly expelled from caucus for speaking out about the charter. Ms. Mivillle-Dechene suddenly went silent and cancelled interviews Friday after her complaint.

“Her silence worries us deeply,” said Liberal critic Christine St-Pierre.

Françoise David, a member of the National Assembly for the small party Québec Solidaire and one of Quebec’s leading feminists, shared the concern. “It’s starting to look like the Harper method, which most Quebeckers find detestable,” she said.

The debate over religious accommodation has also opened a number of fault lines in Quebec society, far beyond the usual divide along linguistic lines, or those who are for or against national independence.

Ms. Miville-Dechêne’s quarrel with the government is indicative of a deep split within Quebec feminist ranks.

A CROP poll published by La Presse this week showed Quebeckers divided about evenly into four camps: Religious old-stock francophones who fear immigration, secularists who believe religion should be tolerated, believers who are open to other faiths, and hardline secularists who want most religion expunged from the public space.