After weeks of divisive debate, the Quebec government on Thursday will table its controversial Charter of Quebec Values bill to ban “overt” religious symbols from the public service.
The proposed legislation will outline in legal terms the provisions that have made headlines around the world. The bill will include barring public service employees, including teachers, hospital workers and municipal employees, from wearing Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas and other explicit religious symbols.
It is also expected to propose removing the crucifix above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, a response to complaints that the secular charter was biased against non-Christian religions and would allow public service employees to continue wearing Catholic symbols in the form of small jewellery.
Premier Pauline Marois’ minority Parti Québécois government came under attack from several quarters, including three former PQ premiers, who argued that the plan would go too far in imposing secular values. Former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau said the proposed charter was aimed essentially at Muslim women who wear the hijab – which some see as symbol of female oppression – and could do more harm than good.
Mr. Parizeau and others questioned the need for a charter when Quebec has no apparent problems that require it. He proposed instead that only public servants who hold a power of coercion, such as judges and police officers, should be barred from wearing religious symbols.
Proposals tabled in September met with a firestorm of criticism and reports of heightened social tension. Muslim groups said in a press conference in Montreal on Tuesday they are seeing a spike in reports of verbal and physical attacks against veiled Muslim women.
In an Internet survey of Muslim Quebeckers by the Montreal firm MarkEthnik, one in four of the 556 respondents said they had been the victim of a hateful gesture or criminal act in the past three months. More than half said they felt insecure when they or a family member left home, and 56 per cent felt an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec in recent months.
The Quebec Collective against Islamophobia said it received 117 complaints about anti-Muslim acts or insults in the month after the charter proposals were released, compared with 25 for the first seven months of the year. All but three were from Muslim women who wear a headscarf.
Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said a middle-aged man on a downtown street two weeks ago told him to, “Go back home.” Mr. Elmenyawi said it was the first such incident he had experienced since he had come to Canada more than four decades ago.
The growth in expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment has been “alarming,” he said.
Hanadi Saad, a home daycare worker who wears a Muslim headscarf and has lived in Quebec for 23 years, said she has also been insulted and told to “go home” recently, and that a couple got up and moved away from her at a café on Montreal’s South Shore.