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Canada Quebec hospitals press for exemption from religious-symbols ban

A woman in a veil walks in Montreal on Sept. 10, 2013. Quebec’s network of hospitals and health-care centres wants to opt out of the PQ government’s proposed ban on religious headgear.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

Quebec's vast network of hospitals and health-care centres wants to opt out of the Parti Québécois government's proposed public-sector ban on religious headgear, insisting that such a prohibition would create problems where none exists.

The position represents a rebuke to the minority government of Premier Pauline Marois, which has insisted that Quebec needs a law to address conflicts with religious minorities in public workplaces even though it has provided no studies or statistics to back its case.

The Association québécoise d'établissements de santé et de services sociaux, which represents health-care establishments across the province, polled members on whether the wearing of religious symbols posed a "significant problem" in their institutions.

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"It was 100 per cent," said the head of the group, Diane Lavallée. "There is no problem."

On the contrary, she said, the institutions said banning religious symbols risked creating tensions and driving away talent. Of the 125 institutions polled, 74 establishments responded to the survey.

"To be forced by law to forbid the wearing of religious symbols could cause problems were there aren't any," Ms. Lavallée said in an interview Tuesday after unveiling the findings at a news conference. The group polled hospital directors, hospital boards as well as human-resources directors, in Montreal and in four corners of the province.

"We want to attract the best. There is competition everywhere," Ms. Lavallée said. "We have researchers of international renown in our research centres and they can go anywhere on the planet. We are honoured to have them."

The group is asking Quebec to exempt it from a religious headgear ban, a request that would cause a significant headache for the government since the health-care sector represents 230,000 workers, the largest single public-sector group in Quebec.

Quebec's wish to prohibit public employees from wearing visible religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or Sikh turbans on the job continues to cause an uproar across the country. A new, national public-opinion poll finds the overwhelming majority of Canadians – 72 per cent – disagree with the idea of firing public-sector workers who want to wear religious symbols and clothing on the job. (The Ipsos Reid poll for CTV News, released on Tuesday, found that foreign-born Canadians are less likely than native-born Canadians to oppose such firings.)

The prohibition on religious headgear is one of the twin pillars of the PQ's Charter of Values, which is to be tabled as legislation this fall; the other pillar is a set of criteria to handle requests for accommodations for religious minorities. On the latter, the health-care association says such requests are not a major issue either. When it surveyed members on whether requests for religious accommodation were a "significant problem" for staff or patients, more than 98 per cent answered "No."

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Nonetheless, Ms. Lavallée says her group is willing to support new provincial religious-accommodation guidelines since they reflect measures already in place in various health-care establishments.

The health-care association becomes the latest group seeking to distance itself from Quebec's controversial Charter of Values. All Montreal's main mayoral candidates as well as every municipality on the island of Montreal area wants an exemption of the religious headgear ban if the charter becomes law. Several Montreal hospitals have publicly taken a position against the Charter, and McGill University's new principal, Suzanne Fortier, has said that preventing professors and staff from wearing visible religious symbols "runs contrary to our principles."

Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert, questioned Tuesday about the health-care association's position, said he was surprised by the findings. He says health-care establishments have told him they do face requests for religious accommodations. "I think they're underestimating the problem," Mr. Hébert said of the health-care association.

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