Hearings into the Parti Québécois’ controversial secular charter bill are quickly becoming a mirror of the divisions in Quebec society over its collective identity.
The National Assembly committee heard several pointed arguments on Wednesday from both sides of the debate over the contentious proposal to prohibit the wearing of overt religious symbols such as the hijab, kippa and crucifix in the public service. About 250 parties have submitted briefs and 200 hours have been set aside for several weeks of presentations.
Retired Laval University labour law professor Fernand Morin warned the government that Bill 60 would create a “revolving door” of legal challenges in the workplace that could erupt into a social crisis similar to the one created by the student strikes in the spring of 2012.
“It doesn’t take much to start a fire … It is an open door to debates and enormous costs – not only financial but also moral, professional and others … This bill contains the germ of dispute and discord,” Mr. Morin told the National Assembly committee.
He said the bill will directly affect 600,000 public sector workers, such as teachers, hospital workers and civil servants, and those who defy the law will be subjected to disciplinary sanctions, including dismissal. This could result in costly labour confrontations, he added, in which unions are required by law to defend the rights and jobs of their members.
“If a union refuses to defend its members, a complaint will be filed against it [before the labour relations board] and it will be at the union’s cost,” Mr. Morin added.
Similar disputes could spread into the private sector with companies that do business with the government. Under Bill 60, private companies receiving government contracts would have to comply with the secular charter and prohibit employees from wearing overt religious symbols.
Another opponent to the secular charter, university professor and philosopher Michel Seymour, blasted the PQ for promoting an inward-looking conservative nationalism that will cause considerable harm to Quebec sovereignty.
Mr. Seymour, an avowed sovereigntist, accused the PQ of turning its back on Quebec’s long tradition of embracing pluralism.
He argued that the right of individuals to publicly express their religious affiliations has to be protected.
“The state has no business in people’s bedrooms. It also has no business in their closets.” Mr. Seymour said, adding that if Muslim women in Quebec wear a veil, it is to express a sense of belonging to their religion rather than political ideology.
“I urge you not to transform women’s bodies into a battlefield. Do not fight the wearing of the veil by prohibiting it. Let women decide for themselves,” he said. “The PQ charter is a bad answer to a good question.”
Mr. Seymour’s comments crossed partisan lines, reflecting those expressed by many federalists. “I can tell you this is music to our ears,” said Quebec Liberal MNA and committee member Kathleen Weil.
Pro-charter groups were equally adamant in their support of the secular charter. Two groups argued that far from being a setback, the charter would prove to be a pillar of Quebec society.
“This is not about inward-looking and defensive identity … What we are building here is our national identity,” said Denis Monière, president of the sovereigntist Ligue d’action nationale.
Pro-charter groups argued that Quebec’s distinct values would be challenged before the courts and likely be dismissed. Coalition laïcité Québec urged the government to announce it will use the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Constitution to override an eventual Supreme Court ruling against the bill.
The notwithstanding clause allows provinces to override certain Supreme Court rulings.
“The government should take the lead and use in all its legitimacy the notwithstanding clause by arguing that Quebec has had a particular evolution on the road to secularism,” coalition spokesperson André Lamoureux said.