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‘I don’t go out and leave my faith in a drawer,’ says 23-year-old Dalila Awada.Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail

Quebec's plan to create a secular charter for the province has set off a passionate debate across Canada over faith and freedoms. The government of Premier Pauline Marois is expected to present its vision of how to bring religious neutrality to public-sector workplaces on Tuesday.

It will include tough measures to limit the use of religious symbols in the province, including in schools, hospitals and subsidized daycares. Ms. Marois and her ministers have indicated that they view religious signs as a violation of the principle of neutrality in the public service. Ms. Marois says she views the Muslim head scarf as a form of submission, incompatible with male-female equality, and a daycare worker wearing such a veil could influence children. She also indicated she wants Quebeckers to restrict religious symbols to their private lives. "If people want to wear signs on the street, that's not my problem," she told Radio-Canada. "But when you're serving the state it will have to be clear: The state is neutral … the people who serve you don't want to influence or embarrass you by openly and clearly expressing their convictions."

Meanwhile, in the name of Quebec's Catholic heritage, the government will maintain the crucifix that hangs over the speaker's chair in the National Assembly.

Polls show the government's initiative is popular in the province. But the move has also brought stinging denunciations, giving a glimpse into fierce discussions over the charter that are still to come.


For Montreal city council member Lionel Perez, the debate over Quebec's charter of values is both political and intensely personal.

As Mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where nearly one in two residents is an immigrant, Mr. Perez finds himself defending the kind of easy and open-minded co-existence that has long defined his native city. But Mr. Perez's interest goes deeper. He is an observant Jew who wears a skullcap, or kippa, turning him into a high-profile symbol of Quebec's attempt to define the limits of religious expression in public life.

"I'm obviously a poster child for this issue," Mr. Perez says. "But I'm also living proof that it's not really an issue. Because I've been able to defend citizens' interests and represent the city, and it (my kippa) hasn't inconvenienced or disturbed anybody."

Mr. Perez spearheaded a motion in Montreal city council last month that calls for "inclusive secularism" in Quebec – a tacit rebuff to the Parti Québécois. Mr. Perez has also had to speak up for practices of religious accommodation in his district – such as women-only hours at a city pool and relaxed parking rules on Jewish holidays – that have drawn criticism from PQ minister Bernard Drainville, who is responsible for the Charter of Quebec Values.

But it's Mr. Perez's visible piety, through his head covering, that has made him a living embodiment of the explosive debate over expressions of faith in the public sphere. Mr. Perez, 42, has worn a kippa as a student, practising lawyer, businessman and, since 2009, a member of city council. In his public duties, he has served a multitude of different citizens and visited places of worships such as mosques and Sikh temples. When he sits in Montreal's city council chambers, it is beneath a crucifix on the wall; like Quebec's National Assembly, the province's largest city also displays a prominent cross above its elected decision makers.

"I can be viewed as living proof that (wearing a kippa) is not an issue regarding neutrality," he says. Banning headgear in the public service "will only exclude individuals and marginalize new immigrants," he adds. "This doesn't fit into Quebec values of openness and tolerance."


Dalila Awada considers herself Québécoise. She loves the comedy of Louis-José Houde and the rock tunes of Les Cowboys Fringants. She marched side-by-side with her classmates last year in massive student protests that took over the streets of Montreal.

Yet she says she suddenly feels marginalized in the province in which she was born, and where her parents from Lebanon settled decades ago. Ms. Awada wears a Muslim head scarf. It is that distinction that she fears will separate her from her ambition to become a teacher or Quebec public servant.

"Suddenly, I see doors closing," the 23-year-old says.

Ms. Awada has worn the hijab by personal conviction since the age of 13. Her younger sister, Amal, who has a college diploma in preschool education and also wears a head scarf, wonders if she will be able to be allowed to work with children.

They do not regard their head scarves an accessory or fashion choice, Ms. Awada says. They view it a part of their identity, as much as being Quebeckers.

"I don't go out and leave my faith in a drawer," Ms. Awada says.

"What message are we sending women by telling them to take off their veil, or else they're not considered Quebeckers?"

Ms. Awada, who is completing her undergraduate degree in sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, went through the public-school system in Montreal. She speaks with a Québécois accent. Her dream, she says, is to contribute to the province's future.

"I feel that my place is here. I plan to live my life here," she says. A law that might forbid her from wearing her head scarf to obtain certain jobs has made her reassess her dreams.

"I'm trying to contribute positively to Quebec society. But it's like, from the moment you wear the head scarf, everything else is secondary."


Pierrette Gratton still recalls the scenes of her mother and grandmother heading to Church in the Quebec of the '40s and '50s. They wore dresses to the ankle, long-sleeved shirts, and a hat with a veil covering part of their faces.

"My mother and grandmother had to submit to Church protocol. When the priest came over, you had to kneel down before him," Ms. Gratton, 73, recalls. Priests were known to count the number of children in the house and issue admonishments if there weren't enough.

The images still play themselves vividly in Ms. Gratton's memory, part of a narrative that, to her, summons up an oppressive church that intruded into so many facets of French Quebeckers' lives.

The liberating changes of Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s ended church control in public life and ushered in a secular civil service that removed nuns and priests from hospitals and schools. To Ms. Gratton's mind, Quebeckers worked hard to throw off the constraints of the church, and a new Charter of secular values is the guarantee the province will never go back.

Ms. Gratton, a semi-retired high-school teacher who lives in Sainte-Thérèse, north of Montreal, supports a full ban on visible religious symbols in public service jobs. "We fought back against the influence of the church. Religion is the enemy of women."

Ms. Gratton, who has travelled to countries such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, views herself as a feminist and regards head coverings as a mark of submission among women. She does not want to see them on a government employee serving her at the licence bureau or on a nurse in a hospital. "It offends me. It brings me back to the past. I don't want it imposed on me."

While Ms. Gratton supports the PQ and the idea of a secular charter, she disagrees with the Marois government on one point: She believes that to be consistent, the crucifix over the speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly should go too.

"I'm for secularism, period," she says. "Quebec has to be firm in its values. Women fought against religion and the meddling of priests in our families. We're not going back."


Montrealer Makhlouf Hamlat knows a thing or two about immigration. Born in Algeria, he moved to the Paris suburb of Sarcelles at age 11, then left for Montreal at 33 to complete his post-doctoral studies in the geography of health at the Université de Montréal.

This 55-year-old civil servant who certifies retirement homes for the Ministry of Health and Social Services thinks immigrants should adapt to the country that welcomes them – not the other way around. "When you arrive in a foreign country, you should respect the local customs and habits. This is a Judeo-Christian society," he says.

Mr. Hamlat feels some immigrants have sometimes made "excessive demands" on Quebeckers, such as the Muslims who requested prayer rooms in the workplace. "See if a Christian would get a prayer room if he went to a Muslim country," he asks.

Himself a practising Muslim, Mr. Hamlat knows, and accepts, that his 14-year-old-boy eats meat at his high-school cafeteria that is not prepared according to Halal guidelines.

An advocate for secular public institutions, Mr. Hamlat believes the civil service should be devoid of conspicuous religious signs – though small crosses don't bother him. He recalls he was once offended when a social worker came to a meeting wearing his kippa. "You can go to work and pray when you get back home," he argues.

Even so, he is opposed to any charter that would legislate what people wear. "Clothes are a personal choice," he says.

"A teacher or a daycare worker wearing a veil is not trying to influence what children think. Clothes are not tools of proselytism," he adds.

Mr. Hamlat fears that if the government bans the Islamic veil, it will further stigmatize the scarf-wearing women, a great number of whom come from North Africa. More often than not, these women are marginalized in Quebec because their skills are unrecognized and they have a hard time finding jobs.

For Mr. Hamlat, the proposed charter should focus on setting guidelines so that Quebeckers know when it is reasonable to bend the rules to accommodate differing religious practices – and when it isn't. And the charter should stay clear of establishing a clothing police, he says. "If it goes there, it will start an endless legal battle and it will polarize Quebec society."


Montrealer Isabelle Michaud is not one to veil her opinion: She is uncomfortable with the Islamic scarf. "For me, it is a symbol of a woman's oppression," says this 40-year-old mother of two girls.

Ms. Michaud works for the Laval school board, where she provides spiritual guidance and community services to students in eight schools. She believes her workplace and other public services in the province should be staunchly secular – something the Charter of Quebec Values promises to accomplish.

But for this atheist, the government should refrain from prohibiting a state employee from wearing a kippa, a hijab, a turban and even an Islamic scarf. "I would rather live in a society where women can wear scarfs than in one that forbids it. For me that is as dramatic a measure as if someone compelled me to wear a scarf," she says.

Ms. Michaud thinks that by forcing Quebeckers to choose between their religion and their job, the government will further isolate minorities. "If we forbid people from wearing their religious symbols, they will only withdraw from society and ghettoize themselves," she says.

"That would send the message that they are unwelcome in Quebec."

Ms. Michaud believes that if the Quebec charter goes that far, it will contradict the education reform implemented by the Parti Québécois in 2000, and whose goal was to promote an open secularism.

"For the past 13 years, we have been teaching children that our differences [are] what makes us collectively richer. This would put us at odds with that," she says.

On the eve of her five-year-old daughter's first day at school, Ms. Michaud admitted she would be more attentive to what a teacher would say in class if he was wearing a turban or if she was veiled. "I'll be honest, I would probably be more suspicious," she says.

If the government should stay far from legislating clothes, Ms. Michaud nonetheless believes the Quebec charter should establish a hierarchy between fundamental rights. "Equality between men and women should supersede religious freedom when a religion backs and promotes the submissiveness of women," she argues.

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