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Dos and don’ts: The cross on the left is an acceptable way for public employees in Quebec to wear religious symbols in the workplace. The one on the right is not, according to the government.

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How did the politics of Quebec independence shift from language to dress code?

Behind all the rhetoric about finding common values and the accusations of xenophobia lies an old truism of Quebec politics: it's the vote in the hinterland that counts.

Montreal, where most of Quebec's minorities live, is a place where political lines have long crystallized. As a result, election campaigns in Quebec are usually fought in suburban or rural swing ridings where the population is mostly white and francophone.

The Quebec government's proposed Charter of Quebec Values -- which would banish turbans, kippahs, hijabs and visible crosses from the bodies of public employees -- comes as the ruling Parti Québécois has spent years struggling to remain relevant while there is no prospect of separation.

And so far, recent polls querying Quebeckers on leaked aspects of the proposal have been favourable to the PQ.

Where it began
Back in the fall of 2005, PQ members thought they could revive the flagging interest in their party and their cause by picking a younger leader, André Boisclair, an urbane, openly gay 39-year-old who could digress about the Kyoto protocol.

Alas for the PQ, around the same time, Quebec was gripped by a series of controversies over how much accommodation can be made for religious minorities. Mario Dumont, the leader of the small-c conservative party Action démocratique du Québec, which was strongest in rural, small-town regions, seized on the issue, accusing his rivals of being too soft before the demands of minorities.

Mr. Boisclair wouldn't play that card and by the end of the March 2007 election, his party suffered a historic setback, getting less than 29 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest score since the PQ came of age in the breakthrough 1976 election.

The PQ's grip on the nationalist vote had cracked and the political debate was no longer polarized between federalists and secessionists.

Quebec's changing face
Since colonial days, the public debate in Quebec has repeatedly been shaped by its people's determination to preserve their identity and their fears as a minority within an English-speaking continent. Those concerns have become even more acute as Quebec's population aged and had to rely on immigration to address its demographic problem.

In 1977, Quebec adopted Bill 101, which mandated that immigrants send their children to French public school. In an accord with Ottawa, the province obtained in 1990 the power to select its own immigrants so it could focus on French-speaking newcomers. Few realized at the time that favouring people from North Africa would lead one day to the long-running religious accommodation debate.

In unveiling the Charter of Values on Tuesday, the PQ minister promoting the project, Bernard Drainville, said it addressed "a crisis ... that has been shaking Quebec for the last five years."

Remarkably, the uproar has unfolded while religious minorities remain just that, minorities. According to Statistics Canada, 3.1 per cent of Quebeckers reported that they are Muslims.

Rebuilding the old coalition
At the same time that religious accommodations became an issue, the PQ was losing a key feature on which it had long staked its fortunes -- that there is a so-called "consensus Québécois" where Quebeckers are overwhelmingly social-democrats, progressive and eager for independence.

That had been the case since the 1976 election, when the PQ first took power, when conservative Quebec nationalists migrated to the PQ, aligning themselves with urban social-democrats in a common nation-building project.

In theory, the new Charter of Values could help rebuild that coalition.

Its secular requirements would appeal to urbanites while at the same time reassuring people in outlying regions that something is being done to uphold Quebec's traditional image.

As many critics have pointed out, the government has not been consistent and will keep the Duplessis-era crucifix hanging above the speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly. On Tuesday, Mr. Drainville said that the Christmas tree unveiled each year in front of the legislature will also remain. "It's part of the past … the rules we are adopting are for the present and the future and shouldn't wipe off the past," he said.

Mr. Drainville also struggled when asked what would happen to the traditional prayer before the city council meetings in the municipality of Saguenay, which is now being challenged in court.

Observers say it is no coincidence that the PQ has argued such Christian artifacts are part of Quebec's "heritage," as there is only so much secularism the government can push in the hinterland.

A fight with the Supreme Court of Canada
The proposal unveiled Tuesday by Mr. Drainville will also enshrine the principles of government religious neutrality and secularism in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, ensuring that the new plan wouldn't clash with the province's own charter.

The project could also run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The PQ says it will not invoke the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to shield the proposal from legal challenges based on the Canadian Charter.

"We are convinced our project is constitutional," Mr. Drainville said.

Still, should an aggrieved hijab-wearing teacher or nurse go to the court, it wouldn't hurt the PQ either. There is a long history of Quebec nationalists or separatists portraying the Supreme Court of Canada as a villain. Premier Maurice Duplessis used to compare the top court to the Pisa tower because it always leaned the same way, against Quebec. The Supreme Court has more recently been seen as the federal institution that undercut parts of the French Language Charter when Bill 101's rules on access to English school and commercial signs were challenged.

Before the last election, Mr. Drainville had said that a PQ government would benefit from its fights with Ottawa, as an unfavourable Supreme Court decision could be portrayed as proof that Quebec cannot fully thrive inside the Canadian federation.

Tu Thanh Ha, a Globe reporter in Toronto, previously reported for many years from Quebec.