Ontario has condemned Quebec’s proposed secular charter, passing a resolution promising that religious symbols will always be welcome in the province’s public places.
While politicians across the country have lined up against the Parti Québécois’s attempts to keep religion out of the public realm, Ontario legislators went a step further Thursday. The motion, moved by Liberal MPP Monte Kwinter and adopted unanimously, affirms the province will not support any legislation that would restrict religious expression.
Amid roiling national debate over the charter, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government turned the controversy to its political advantage. Two cabinet ministers stood with Mr. Kwinter as he announced the move. Shortly before the vote, Ms. Wynne’s staff circulated an article she wrote praising the resolution.
“We are sending the world a message that our differences don’t divide us, they unite us,” she wrote. “No matter what symbols you wear or where you live, no matter what your gender, orientation or ability, there is only one Ontario.”
Meanwhile, Quebec’s Catholic bishops said they oppose a broad ban on religious symbols for government workers, saying the proposal could backfire and leave more women isolated in cultural “ghettos.”
In Ontario, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak rallied his troops, ensuring nearly his entire caucus was present for the late-afternoon vote.
“If somebody in government wants to decorate their office with Christmas decorations or they want to light a diya for Diwali, that should be their right to do so,” he said. “It is not the place of government to restrict those, and that runs against the great values we have as Canadians.”
Mr. Kwinter, for his part, said the motion was more than a symbolic measure. Many people considering immigrating to Canada might not know the difference between Ontario and Quebec, he said, and could be turned off from moving to Ontario under the mistaken belief they will not be allowed to openly practise their religion.
“When they hear that one province is doing something, they assume that Canada is doing it and it creates a negative image,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Is that going to happen in Ontario?’ And all we’re trying to do is reassure them that we would not support anything that would in any way put our ethnic communities, our cultural communities at risk in the way they’re being put at risk in Quebec.”
New Democrat MPP Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban and carries a kirpan, called on the government to go further than Mr. Kwinter’s motion and change regulations that make it hard for religious minorities to work in some fields. He pointed to rules that prevent firefighters from having beards; uncut hair, including a full beard, is an article of faith in Sikhism.
Mr. Singh argued that Quebec’s charter discriminates against religious minorities. Catholics, for instance, do not generally wear highly visible religious symbols, he said, but Sikhs do.
“It’s how I express who I am. It’s my identity and it gives me the strength and the confidence to do what I do,” he said. “There’s an oath I’ve taken that I will stand for the rights of all people. When I wear the kirpan day to day, it reminds me of my oath, that it’s my duty as a Sikh to stand up for the rights of all people.”
Ontario Citizenship and Immigration Minister Michael Coteau contended that, given the intense interest the PQ’s move has elicited, the issue has transcended Quebec’s borders.
“It’s not a Quebec conversation, it’s a national conversation,” he said. “People are talking about it in B.C., they’re talking about it on the East Coast, they’re talking about it in Ontario, and I think we have an obligation to weigh in.”