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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

PQ takes a hard line on a toughened-up Quebec secular charter Add to ...

The Parti Québécois is charging ahead with a toughened secular charter and ratcheting up the political stakes after threatening to force an election if anyone blocked it from tabling the bill.

The PQ is hinting it will take a similarly hard line later in the legislative process. “We’ll talk about the political meaning of that vote on second reading when the time comes,” said Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the file.

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Bill 60, introduced Thursday, includes controversial provisions to ban veils, kippas and turbans in the workplace for public servants, including daycare workers, doctors and senior bureaucrats. (Read the full version of the bill.)

But the draft legislation contains elements that weren’t in the September outline that would force the dress code on private contractors and publicly subsidized businesses and it severely curtails promised opt-out provisions for cities and educational institutions. It even covers the food that daycares serve, banning the use of halal or kosher foods to advance a “religious precept.”

After introducing the bill, Mr. Drainville extended one olive branch to opponents who have decried the hypocrisy of cracking down on religious symbols while protecting the calendar-size crucifix hanging in the National Assembly: He declared the government open to a members’ vote on moving the Catholic symbol elsewhere.

A social rift that has opened in Quebec only deepened with the formal arrival of the bill, especially in Montreal, where Muslim groups have reported verbal and physical assaults on women after the outline of the plan was introduced at the end of summer.

Before the 19-page bill was even made public, the PQ threatened to make a confidence matter out of the simple tabling of the bill – a routine piece of business the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec were unlikely to oppose. The move raised expectations that the any future votes on the bill would be votes of confidence. The opposition had long suspected the PQ wants to run an election campaign using the charter as a wedge to bolster support among francophone voters.

The opposition Liberals said they will do everything possible to block passage of the legislation. Leader Philippe Couillard insisted the law is unnecessary and unconstitutional. He predicted it would be easily overturned in court. “This day marks a profound break with our 400-year history of openness and integration. It is a project that I can qualify as being unworkable, illegal and unconstitutional,” Mr. Couillard said. “It is a frontal assault on our freedoms.”

The government promised it will hold public hearings, which may not begin until January. A vote on second reading of the bill is unlikely before late in the winter, when the threat of a spring election will loom.

Samira Laouni of Quebec Muslims for Rights and Freedoms says Muslim women have already paid the price, facing street confrontations. Some women who emigrated from French-speaking North Africa have started to take English lessons so they can find work outside Quebec, said Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal. “This debate has poisoned the atmosphere in Quebec and will continue to do so for a long time,” Mr. Elmenyawi said.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, an internationally renowned AIDS researcher based at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said the legislation is “politically motivated and doesn’t have a lot of rationale.”

Dr. Wainberg, who wears a kippa, says the PQ’s charter belies Quebeckers’ tolerant attitudes in day-to-day life, and he sees it as needlessly divisive. “It really seems unnecessary and small-minded,” he said.

The PQ has compared the charter to Bill 101, the Quebec French-language charter that was divisive for curtailing English rights in Quebec. Dr. Wainberg called the PQ’s comparison misleading.

“Anyone can learn French. But when you’re talking about faith, nobody can change their faith. If this becomes law, there will be victims: women in hijabs, men in yarmulkes, Sikhs who wear turbans. They will either leave town or find other jobs that will accommodate them.”

If the bill is to be adopted the PQ, will need the support of the CAQ, which holds the balance of power. Support for the CAQ has dropped as the PQ took hold of the identity issue.

CAQ Leader François Legault, who supports the adoption of rules on religious accommodation said this week he was willing to negotiate, but the PQ has turned a deaf ear.

Cracks within the separatist movement have appeared, starting with opposition from former premier Jacques Parizeau. The pro-sovereignty Québec Solidaire said it was ashamed that the PQ would table a bill that curtails the right of Muslim women to work and fully integrate.

“This doesn’t smell good. It creates a climate of division that is unhealthy. It threatens people who pose no problem to society,” said Québec Solidaire co-leader Françoise David. “As a sovereignist I find this sad.”

The political establishment in Montreal, where the vast majority of Quebec religious minorities live, rallied against the charter. In the recent municipal election, all mayoral candidates were against it. McGill University issued a statement of regret that the province is plowing ahead. The chamber of commerce blasted the PQ for damaging the economic engine of the province by sending a negative message to immigrants.

Denis Coderre, who will be sworn in as the mayor of Montreal on Nov. 14, said the city will weigh in against the bill when legislative committees examine it. He said a later legal challenge is also possible. “Integration does not mean conformity. You cannot define a metropolis by its diversity, and then say it means nothing,” Mr. Coderre said.

There is also a common front against the proposed charter in Ottawa, where the federalist parties are hoping the legislation will never be enacted.

“Quebec values are values of inclusion and openness,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said, accusing Quebec Premier Pauline Marois of using divisive tactics in political desperation. “I don’t want other Canadians to be judging Quebeckers based on what they are seeing here today.”

The federal Minister of Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, reaffirmed his government’s intention to fight any infringement of the constitutional rights of Canadians.

“If the bill as currently framed, seeking to ban certain Canadians from participation in public life, becomes law, we will closely analyse it. If it is found to violate our Constitution and our constitutionally protected freedom of religion, we will challenge it,” he said in a speech in Toronto.

With reports from Les Perreaux in Montreal and Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa

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