A union representing 32,000 teachers in Quebec says it won't go along with measures that would ban religious headgear in the classroom, characterizing any such crackdown as a "witch hunt."
In the first formal position by a major public-sector union on the reported contents of the Quebec Charter of Values, the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement says it supports the notion of secular state institutions, but targeting personal religious symbols is the wrong way to go about it.
"We won't go on a witch hunt to see who wears a hijab, kippa or cross," Sylvain Mallette, president of the union, said in an interview after making the position public. "We will defend the right of our members to work."
The union says that if a teacher faced losing his job due to his religious garb, the union would be prepared to fight the case in court.
According to a media leak, which has not been disavowed by the Parti Québécois government, the province wants to protect state secularism by prohibiting public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols in workplaces such as schools, hospitals and daycares. A draft of the charter is set to be revealed on Monday.
The Fédération autonome de l'enseignement represents teachers in the French-language school system in Montreal, home to the overwhelming majority of immigrants who settle in Quebec. It represents a third of the teachers in the province. While it's not the largest union, it's one whose teachers live day-to-day with the realities of multicultural classrooms. The province's largest teachers' union has not yet taken a position on the charter.
Like the other public-sector unions in Quebec – including those representing nurses and civil servants – Quebec's largest teachers' union says it will wait for the government of Premier Pauline Marois to table its proposals before commenting. However, the Syndicat de la fonction publique du Québec, which represents provincial civil servants, is already on record as saying it supports a ban on religious headgear for state employees.
The minority Marois government, which marked its one-year anniversary on Wednesday, has made the values charter and other Quebec identity issues a centrepiece of its agenda; the government also wants to introduce mandatory Quebec history courses.
Mr. Mallette says his members have already been consulted on the issue. While the union believes there are real issues over religious accommodations in public schools – for example, parents who have sought to withdraw their children from classes that teach evolution – dress codes for teachers are beside the point.
"Preventing someone from wearing a hijab or kippa isn't a way to ensure the secular nature of the state and its institutions," Mr. Mallette said. "For us, respecting secularism has nothing to do with whether you wear religious symbols or accessories."
Though a majority of Quebeckers have told pollsters they're concerned about religious accommodations, response to the issue is more complex in Montreal. Underscoring the sometimes divergent views between Montreal and the rest of the province, Montreal city council unanimously adopted a motion last week that cautions the Marois government on the need for "inclusive secularism" that "unites Montrealers of all backgrounds and beliefs."
The teachers' federation is also clashing with the PQ government's position on the crucifix hanging in the Quebec National Assembly, saying it would be "incoherent" for legislators to pass a law in favour of state secularism while sitting beneath a crucifix. The cross should be moved elsewhere in the National Assembly building, it says.
The PQ says it won't touch the crucifix, installed in the legislature in 1936. The minister responsible for the charter file, Bernard Drainville, reiterated in an interview aired this week that the government considers the crucifix part of Quebec history and culture and "is there to stay."
In an apparent defence of the government's readiness to tackle dress codes, Mr. Drainville told Radio-Canada that Quebec rid itself of religion in its public institutions in the 1960s and public servants became "neutral" in appearance.
"If it was fine for Catholics in the 1960s, why wouldn't it be good for all religions 50 years later?" he asked.
Meanwhile, the Premier of British Columbia became the latest leader from outside Quebec to wade into the charter controversy. A day after Ontario's Kathleen Wynne raised concerns, B.C. Premier Christy Clark drew a contrast between her province and Quebec on the issue.
"We welcome diversity," Ms. Clark told reporters on Wednesday.
"We think that diversity from all over the globe, whoever you are, wherever you're from, makes us richer and better."
Ms. Clark said B.C.'s goal to lead among provincial economies hinges on believing in and embracing diversity.
"If that's different from what they're doing in Quebec, I can say this about British Columbia: We are not about going backward," she said. "Diversity is a strength."
With a report from Ian Bailey