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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois gestures as she speaks at the "Universite d'ete des jeunes du Parti Quebecois" event in Quebec City, Sunday, August 25, 2013.FRANCIS VACHON/The Canadian Press

Premier Pauline Marois says the Parti Québécois's proposed secular charter will unify Quebeckers, the same way that the province's language laws have.

"The Charter of Quebec Values will become a strong unifying factor for Quebeckers, as is the case for Bill 101 today," Ms. Marois said Sunday to young PQ militants who met in Quebec City this weekend. This was the first time Ms. Marois spoke of the charter since the Journal de Montréal reported last Tuesday that her government plans to ban religious headgear and other visible symbols everywhere from day-care centres and hospitals to government offices.

Bill 101 governs everything from store signs to the language in which children are taught. The legislation, adopted 36 years ago Monday, shocked the English community, and sharply divided Quebec. Since then, there have been a series of legal, political and constitutional challenges.

While Bill 101's application is still debated – including the Pastagate incident this spring, in which a zealous language enforcer asked a Montreal restaurant to translate its Italian menu – the law's grand objective of protecting and promoting French is widely shared by Quebeckers.

"Bill 101 was needed because, without it, Montreal would have ceased to be French. Whereas I am at a loss to see what harm there is in having a bus driver wearing a turban or a lawyer wearing a kipa. The analogy doesn't hold," said Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey.

The Quebec government has yet to unveil the details of its charter, which is intended to guide Quebeckers when they are asked to bend the rules to accommodate different religious practices. But news that Quebec would forbid turbans, kipas, and hijabs in its public institutions has reignited the debate about religious freedom in the province. It had barely abated since the Quebec Soccer Federation banned Sikh turbans on soccer fields earlier this summer, with Ms. Marois's blessing, only to repeal the ban after a national outcry.

Some polls have indicated such a charter would be popular, but critics have denounced the plan as extreme and divisive. Philosopher Charles Taylor said it is evocative of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Even some who promote secularism are uncomfortable with what the government is reportedly proposing.

But Ms. Marois says a clear law will create unity. "What divides Quebeckers is not diversity, it is the absence of clear rules so that we can move onward in harmony," the Premier said in her speech, later stressing that her plan is in keeping with the province's move away from a deeply religious public sphere. "To recognize secularism as a Quebec value is to take cognizance of the evolution of a people which, for the past half century, has become increasingly secular and has taken the confessional character out of its institutions."

The Official Opposition said the Premier is "extremely premature" in assuming Quebeckers will rally behind her charter. "What little we know from what the government leaked to the media has been received by very mixed reactions," said Harold Fortin, spokesman for Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard.

The opposition leader was travelling to Lac-Saint-Jean Sunday night and had not been made aware of Ms. Marois's speech at press time. "Mr. Couillard has been crisscrossing Quebec since last October, and no one ever raises that issue. What they care about is jobs," Mr. Fortin added.

The Coalition Avenir Québec was equally scolding. "I don't see how the Charter can reach the same legitimacy as the [French language] charter the way they started this debate, as we haven't seen any official document besides what was leaked. It is pretentious on Mrs. Marois's part," said Jean-François Del Torchio, spokesman for party chief François Legault. Mr. Legault will hold a press conference on Monday to express his views on secularism.

The Parti Québécois campaigned heavily on identity issues during the last election, which struck a chord with its traditional supporters. Ms. Marois promised to establish a secular charter for the province's public institutions. However, her minority government stopped referring to the plan as a secular charter last spring after it discovered that appealing to values would sound more positive and would resonate with Quebeckers.

An Internet survey conducted by Léger Marketing last spring at the bequest of the government showed that 54 per cent of Quebeckers believe that "all religious symbols should be forbidden in public." Only 9 per cent of those surveyed believed it was "acceptable" to allow State employees to wear religious signs at work. The interviews were conducted with 1506 Quebeckers, 500 of which were non Francophones, from March 12 to March 17.

Bernard Drainville, minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, is set to unveil the principles guiding the Charter of Quebec Values in September. A formal bill to be debated in a parliamentary commission would follow in the fall.

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