The escalating controversy over Quebec’s proposed charter of values is spreading unease among Quebec businesses, and opportunity in the rest of the country.
One Ontario hospital is already taking direct aim at disaffected religious minorities in the province with a recruitment ad in a McGill University newspaper featuring a young woman in a head scarf.
“We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it,” explains the provocative tag line for the ad by Lakeridge Health of Oshawa, Ont.
The ad highlights a worst-case scenario for Quebec business leaders, who say the charter’s restrictions on religious clothing for public-sector workers will scare off investment and make it more difficult for them to recruit talent.
“A society that is judged closed and intolerant towards individual liberties will fail to attract the talent and investment required to grow and prosper,” warned Michel Leblanc, who heads the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, which has asked the province to back down on legislating religious symbols.
The proposed charter, he added, is raising “major concerns” in Montreal’s business community because it stigmatizes employees who wear religious symbols, many of whom are immigrants.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Bernard Drainville, lead Parti Québécois minister on the charter issue, urged the private sector to use the charter as a guide for determining whether to accommodate religious differences in the workplace.
His comments have left many organizations fretting about how the charter might affect them.
“This is becoming rather complicated,” acknowledged Richard Vigneault, spokesman for Olymel LP, a pork and poultry processor.
Other business leaders say the province is butting in where it’s not wanted, or needed, by suggesting that parts of the charter may apply to the private sector.
“We receive about 8,000 calls a year on average, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of questions we have received about how to deal with a religious accommodation request,” said Martine Hébert, vice-president, Quebec, for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents 24,000 small companies in the province.
“This is a marginal issue,” she added, noting that if religion in the workplace was really a problem in Quebec, the organization would have gotten an earful.
Ms. Hébert believes that the guidelines that are spelled out in the charter, on how to deal with a religious request by an employee, could be helpful. But she said most business owners are generally wary of any new legislation and would prefer to have none.
“This could become a double-edged sword. This could lead to an increase in the number of demands [for religious accommodation],” she said.
The board of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, which represents about 60,000 businesses and 150,000 members throughout the province, and the Quebec Employers Council say they are consulting members on the issue.
Numerous other major Quebec businesses contacted by The Globe declined to comment on the controversy, including Bombardier, Jean Coutu, Bell Canada, Metro Inc., CGI Group, Resolute, National Bank of Canada, Alimentation Couche-Tard and Mega Brands.
The confusion over how far Quebec’s PQ government intends to go is clearly bad for the economy and for investment in the province, said Claude Montmarquette, president of the Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations, a Montreal think tank.
“It’s a question of perception, and the perception that many people have of the charter is negative, and that can raise questions among investors and immigrants,” Mr. Montmarquette said. “This is a situation that creates uncertainty and strong emotions, which are not good for the economy.”
The flip-side is opportunity for employers in the rest of the country.
The head of Lakeridge Health said the McGill ad, slated to run Monday, is natural given the struggle to attract medical professionals in the competitive Toronto-area job market.
“The genesis is our constant need to recruit new people,” explained president and chief executive Kevin Empey, who pointed out that the hospital is adding staff at a rate of 20 to 60 per month. “We need all kinds of clinical specialties. We saw what was going on in Quebec.”
As far away as Alberta, policy makers say the furor in Quebec is a lure for them.
“It is important for people across Canada, and particularly in Quebec, to know that if they don’t feel welcome in that community, they’re certainly welcome in this one,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city, said recently.