Stephen Harper is predicting the more contentious elements of the Quebec Charter of Values will disappear because of the Parti Québécois government's minority status, saying "common sense" will prevail in the debate over secularism and religious freedom in the province.
Speaking in Richmond, B.C., the Prime Minister sought to cool down the pan-Canadian rhetoric over the PQ's proposal to ban government workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. However, he also said he is confident that a "balanced solution" is in sight, as there could be support among the major parties in Quebec for a watered-down series of measures.
The most recent poll suggests that Quebeckers are deeply divided over the PQ proposals, but that there is a desire in parts of the province for some restrictions on religious symbols and a more secular provincial government. While Mr. Harper's Conservative Party has only a small foothold in the province, its current pockets of support are located in small-town Quebec where the charter has proven to be most popular.
The PQ is governing with a tight minority in the National Assembly, and its proposed Charter of Values failed to garner support last week among the Quebec Liberal Party, the Coalition Avenir Québec or Québec Solidaire. Still, the third-place CAQ agrees with restrictions on the ability of government officials in positions of authority – such as judges and police officers – to wear religious symbols on the job.
"I do not see the charter in its current form going anywhere," Mr. Harper told reporters. "I think the common sense of Quebeckers will force this towards a reasonable conclusion as the debate progresses."
Mr. Harper repeated that his government will fight any legislation that goes against the constitutional rights of Canadians, while stating that he trusts Quebeckers to bring the ongoing debate to a resolution that will respect the province's linguistic reality.
"I already see the reaction among parties in the National Assembly, the public debate, and I think that we will come to a balanced solution that will protect our minorities, and at the same time, obviously, give space to cultural minorities in the francophone society that is Quebec," Mr. Harper said in French.
The proposed charter has elicited near-unaninimous condemnation among federal parties, although there is concern in Ottawa that the PQ is seeking to fuel a fight between Quebeckers and other Canadians. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the proposals from the PQ are "patently illegal" and were crafted by the Marois government for political gain.
"So you know that some of this was not written by attorneys who were looking at having legal provisions that could be enforced," he said. "They were written by political operatives within Premier [Pauline] Marois' office or inside the office of the minister responsible to provoke exactly the type of very strong reaction that it's been provoking."
Speaking in Toronto, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the PQ is "playing the crassest kind of divisive politics to try and re-energize a debate around the fading option of sovereignty." He added that "Quebeckers are not intolerant people."
According to a Léger Marketing poll, 43 per cent of respondents in Quebec supported the charter while 42 per cent were against. In the key francophone electorate, the plan had the backing of 49 per cent of respondents while 34 per cent were opposed. Among anglophones, only 15 per cent favoured the charter while 72 per cent were against.
Support for the proposal appeared to have diminished in recent weeks. In August, when parts of the plan were first leaked, about 57 per cent of respondents in a Léger poll said the charter was a good idea; 65 per cent of francophones supported the plan, as did 25 per cent of anglophones.
Bernard Drainville, the lead minister selling the plan for the PQ government, appeared to be trying to turn down the temperature of the debate, and asked Mr. Harper and the PQ rivals to do likewise.
"Mr. Harper has the right to his opinion, and I respect him," Mr. Drainville said. "Now I'd ask Mr. Harper and everyone else to respect the right of Quebeckers to discuss the issue."
Ms. Marois, meanwhile, refused to comment on a weekend demonstration against the charter in Montreal.
"[The debate is] happening very peacefully and that's what's important," Ms. Marois said. "I think Quebeckers are altogether capable of having this debate, sharing their opinions, so we can eventually make decisions on these issues."
With reports from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa, Les Perreaux in Montreal, Tu Thanh Ha and Sahar Fatima in Toronto, and The Canadian Press