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Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, right, has said the charter’s ban religious articles is ‘an essential and inescapable condition of the bill.’ (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, right, has said the charter’s ban religious articles is ‘an essential and inescapable condition of the bill.’ (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec’s Charter of Values debate a hearing in name only Add to ...

One man said he wouldn’t want his prostate checked by a female doctor who wore a head-to-toe chador. Another said Montreal is already “strange” to the rest of Quebec and could get stranger. A former nun said she switched cashes at Staples rather than be served by a woman in Muslim head scarf.

The Parti Québécois government wrapped up the first week of hearings into its highly contentious Charter of Values. To hear some of the comments from the first 21 presenters, it will take endurance listening to the remaining 230 or so.

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The parliamentary consultations into Bill 60, held in the chandeliered decorum of the National Assembly’s Salon Rouge, have produced some less-than-edifying remarks from an eager public. But it might not matter: While these are nominally hearings, there is reason to question if anyone’s being heard.

The PQ minister responsible for the legislation, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, won’t budge on the bill’s only real issue in dispute – the ban on wearing such religious articles as turbans, kippas and head scarves in the Quebec civil service. It’s “an essential and inescapable condition of the bill,” he said as hearings kicked off.

The position has spawned no small amount of cynicism. One editorial cartoonist showed Mr. Drainville saying, “I’m listening to you” while wearing earplugs. Another depicted the minister placing the public’s parliamentary briefs directly into a paper shredder.

Critics say the real goal of the hearings is to keep the emotional identity issue alive long enough to carry the minority PQ government into the next election – and, the party hopes, to a majority. MNA Françoise David of the opposition Québec solidaire, who sits on the committee studying Bill 60, says the government could get support for its bill if it wasn’t so inflexible on the hugely divisive secular dress code.

“When we have a minister who says the ban is a question of principle and he won’t back down on it – while it’s the only issue the debate is about – it begs the question: Why are we putting 250 hours into a committee?” Ms. David said in an interview.

In fact, in the politicized atmosphere of the charter debate, both the PQ and Liberals amply use the time accorded to them after each brief as a platform to state their respective political cases.

On Thursday, after listening to former Bloc Québécois leader Michel Gauthier speak in favour of the charter, Mr. Drainville said: “Sometimes I get the impression that people … who are against the charter look at us with a certain moral superiority, with a kind of sentiment that only their position had legitimacy. But the legitimacy of our position, they don’t recognize that,” Mr. Drainville said to Mr. Gauthier. “That bugs me a bit. I wanted to know if it bugged you a bit, too, sometimes.”

Despite the partisan nature of the hearings, the issues at stake in Bill 60 – faith, freedoms and identity – are too important to ignore. Quebeckers are travelling to Quebec City from across the province to present briefs; in the next three weeks, the committee will hear from such groups and institutions as the University of Montreal, Concordia University and Quebec’s main employers’ group, Le Conseil du patronat, all of whom have spoken critically of the bill’s effects. The bill raises the spectre of teachers, nurses and daycare workers losing their jobs if they refuse to remove their religious garb.

While some presenters veer into intolerance – like the woman who complained that when she visited a mosque in Morocco, the men were praying “on all fours” – many are reasoned, researched and illustrate the passions the debate has ignited. University of Montreal philosopher Michel Seymour, a sovereigntist who nonetheless opposes the charter, pleaded with legislators not to “turn women’s bodies into a battlefield.”

“There are fundamentalists who don’t wear head scarves. There are people who wear head scarves who aren’t fundamentalists. We’re firing at the wrong target,” he said after his appearance.

Some are showing up to watch the committee in action; its hearings aren’t on Quebec’s all-news channels, since they’re already carrying live coverage of the other issue roiling the province, the Charbonneau corruption hearings. Claire Rochette, a PQ supporter and retired teacher from Quebec City, turned up one day because she ardently supports the charter.

“It’s essential for the survival of the Québécois,” she said. “Our ancestors have fought to survive for 400 years. We suffered enough from the Catholic Church. We don’t want any religion to dominate us again.”

Meanwhile, as the hearings unfold in the gilded confines of the Salon Rouge, out on the streets of Montreal, Muslim women report increased insults and physical assaults, and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre says Bill 60 is having a negative impact on the city’s large community of Holocaust survivors. “The bill generates fear and questioning among survivors,” the centre says in its brief to the committee. “Are we at home here? Will the ban on religious symbols stigmatize and cause more prejudice toward religious minorities?”

Quebeckers have already heard every side of the debate. Polls suggest their minds are largely made up. But the arguing over Bill 60 isn’t about to go away any time soon.

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