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Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee, left, looks on as Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks at a news conference in Quebec City on Feb. 14, 2017.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Premier Philippe Couillard says his government refuses to impose bans on religious headwear for police officers and other authority figures in Quebec as he tries to contain a debate he says risks damaging the province's image worldwide.

The Liberal Premier has been facing opposition pressure to subject authority figures to limits on headwear such as veils, turbans or kippas. But the Premier on Tuesday forcefully rejected such limits and gained a significant ally.

Charles Taylor, a leading Canadian intellectual who has been described as one of the world's greatest living philosophers, said such a ban raises the possibility of stigmatizing the Muslim community. Mr. Taylor was, along with academic Gérard Bouchard, co-chairman of a high-profile commission on reasonable accommodation that recommended in 2008 that figures of coercion in Quebec be prevented from wearing symbols of their faith.

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Those figures include police officers, judges, prison guards and prosecutors.

However, Mr. Taylor has now said he has changed his mind. In an unusual move, he has disavowed a key section of his report.

"I did sign the report where this recommendation appears; but nine years later, I no longer endorse it," he wrote in La Presse.

The mosque attack in Quebec City that claimed the lives of six Muslim worshippers last month created a new context, said Mr. Taylor, an emeritus philosopher at McGill University. Quebec has just started to close the divisions left by the acrimonious debate over the Parti Québécois's Charter of Values, which would have banned religious headwear in the public service. That debate stigmatized some minorities and even led to verbal and physical assaults against women wearing head coverings, he said.

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Quebeckers have now started to rally together in the wake of the mosque assault.

"I believe we cannot afford the luxury of taking new steps that would renew the stigmatization, regardless of the good intentions of some of their defenders," Mr. Taylor wrote, in French. "Let's not reopen the wounds. Let's leave all the room to a time of reconciliation."

He admitted his stance puts him at odds with Mr. Bouchard, who has pushed for the figures-of-authority ban on a matter of principle. "We disagree," Mr. Taylor told an interviewer Tuesday about his former co-chairman. "We were never entirely in agreement."

Quebec is in the throes of yet another discussion over the place of religion in the public realm because the Liberals have introduced Bill 62, legislation that would forbid people from giving or receiving public services with their faces covered. The government presents it as a matter of security and communication.

The opposition Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec have said they want the bill to include a headwear ban for authority figures.

Mr. Couillard argues that such a step would amount to "clothing discrimination." He hinted on Tuesday he might propose changes to Bill 62, but has given no indication he is prepared to withdraw it.

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Yet, the bill has faced criticism that it, too, could end up discriminating against Muslim women. The Quebec Human Rights Commission said a ban on face coverings would end up targeting women wearing the niqab. "The commission is aware of the controversy that can be caused by the wearing of a face veil, and the discomfort expressed by part of the population, but it reiterates its concerns about the discriminatory effect that [the provision] risks having," it said last fall.

Mr. Couillard called Mr. Taylor's about-face "significant." The debate in Quebec over enforcing religious-headwear bans risked spinning out of control, he suggested.

"From the police we'll go to teachers, from teachers we'll end up at the beach," the Premier said. "If we want to give Quebec a black eye internationally and leave it with a bad reputation, this is specifically the kind of thing … not to do."

CAQ Leader François Legault announced he plans to campaign in next year's provincial election on restricting religious headwear for teachers. Mr. Legault has also mused about banning the burkini from Quebec beaches.

Mr. Couillard said he wants to lower obstacles for immigrants by easing access to jobs and professional orders, saying that it was important in the wake of the mosque shootings to take action in favour of inclusiveness. Quebec's unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent is far higher for newcomers, reaching 9.8 per cent among immigrants overall and 15 per cent for those who have been in the province for fewer than five years.

"We need as a society to lift these barriers," the Premier said.

The vice president of the Quebec City mosque which was the site of a mass shooting says he is keen to restore the mosque to normal operation.
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