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Quebec Minister for International Relations and Montreal, Jean-Francois Lisee, speaks to reporters at a news conference about the government's proposed Charter of Values Tuesday, September 17, 2013 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Quebec's international relations minister says he's disappointed but not surprised by the backlash in English Canada to the province's proposed charter of values.

"I'm a bit disappointed to see that there are voices being raised that are trying to tell Quebec that it doesn't have the right to hold this debate, that it shouldn't be asking this question, that it shouldn't be taking action, that it's contrary in general to individual rights," Jean-François Lisée said at a news conference Tuesday at which he called for calm and reasoned discussion over what has become a divisive, emotional set-to over secularism and religious freedom in Quebec.

"Let's take a deep breath," he said.

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At the same time, Mr. Lisée said the Parti Québécois government is open to making changes to the proposed charter in light of public feedback.

"Is it possible to improve the project? Of course," he said.

Contrary to what some commentators in the rest of Canada are saying, Quebec's reputation abroad is not being sullied by the Parti Québécois government's proposal to ban government workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job, said Mr. Lisée.

Other countries are engaged in similar debates over secularism and they view it as perfectly normal, said Mr. Lisée, who is also minister responsible for relations with Montreal's English-speaking community.

"Obviously, in English Canada the newspapers are letting themselves go. They let themselves go at the time of Bill 101 [the French-language charter of 1977]. They said it was democratically regressive; they said it would exclude when it was inclusive."

The proposed charter – which would ban the wearing of hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and oversized crucifixes – is a progressive, modern and logical next step in Quebec's shift over the past 50 years to a "neutral," secular state, said Mr. Lisée.

Polls indicate that Quebeckers are deeply divided by the PQ proposal, but that there is support in parts of the province for certain restrictions on religions symbols. The minority PQ has failed to win support from the Quebec Liberal Party, the Coalition Avenir Québecor Québec Solidaire.

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Last week, a group of 15 Montreal municipalities came out against the charter and the main candidates in the city's upcoming mayoral elections also oppose it.

"I'd rather they all supported it. I'm not surprised at the reaction," Mr. Lisée said on Tuesday about the municipalities' unified stance.

He also said he deplores reported incidents of bigotry against religious minorities.

Reporters showed him an online video in which a man on a Montreal bus tells a woman wearing a Muslim headscarf: "This is our home! With [Premier Pauline] Marois, we're going to take off your toque."

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