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Why Harper has to ‘walk on eggshells’ with PQ’s secular charter

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois makes an announcement on PQ food sovereignty, Thursday May 16, 2013 at Baie St-Paul.

Clement Allard/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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The Harper government is waiting for concrete proposals before taking a firm stand on the Parti Québécois' upcoming Charter of Quebec Values. It might have to wait some more.

The PQ will not release any proposed legislation when it moves ahead on its controversial plan in coming days, likely some time next week. Instead, the Quebec government will lay out a series of "orientations" and "proposals," meaning that the actual Charter will remain a moving target, provincial officials said.

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Any PQ bill on the measure, which has proven popular in opinion polls in Quebec but remains the subject of heated debate, will only come after a consultation period.

"We will be able to see the positions of the Quebec Liberal Party and the CAQ, and get reactions from Quebec and elsewhere, and then move forward," a PQ insider said.

This means the PQ will be able to drag along the debate and adapt its position based on the reaction of Quebeckers and the rest of the country.

One of the problems for the Harper government will be its desire to win back seats in the Quebec City area, where the Charter could prove popular. If the Conservatives lash out at the PQ proposal, they will be risking alienating some of their would-be voters.

"They will have to walk on eggshells," the PQ insider said.

At this point, the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has led the federal opposition to the proposal, going as far as raising an analogy to segregation in the United States in the 1960s.

One of the Harper government's few comments on the matter to this point has come from Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, who has stated on Twitter that "a child is no less Canadian because she or he wears a kippa, turban, cross, or hijab to school."

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However, the PQ proposal is not expected to affect the ability of anyone to obtain government services if they wear religious symbols. Instead, the PQ government has been promising to prevent government employees from wearing religious symbols, in the name of state secularism. Still, the actual scope of the proposal remains vague, and could go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

At this point, the PQ has defended its plan by highlighting the outcry against the proposal in English Canada, where some analysts and columnists have sharply criticized the planned Charter by raising fears of racism, xenophobia and even fascism.

In this context, the PQ will be closely following the federal government's reaction in coming weeks, in the hopes of scoring points in the province by pitting itself against Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Unless, of course, he chooses to take a softer line than Mr. Trudeau, in which case the PQ will be able to state that its proposal is reasonable.

Daniel Leblanc is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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