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Politics NDP opposes PQ plan to ban religious symbols, Mulcair says

NDP leader Tom Mulcair winks while he addresses party members at a national caucus strategy session on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 in Saskatoon.

Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The leader of the federal New Democrats has made it clear that the Quebec government cannot rely on his party to stand aside as it battles Ottawa over its proposal to forbid civil servants in that province from wearing overt symbols of religious faith.

In a speech to his MPs on Wednesday, the final day of a summer meeting in Saskatoon, Thomas Mulcair said the New Democrats are a party that represents all Canadians. "All ethnic origins, all religions," Mr. Mulcair said in French. "All Canadians."

The campaign-style address was short on policy and long on platitudes. But the implication that he will fight the changes that the Parti Québécois government wants to make to the Quebec charter of rights drew loud applause from the caucus, a majority of whom hail from Quebec.

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Some polls suggest that the PQ's proposal to secularize Quebec's civil service has the support of a large number of Quebeckers.

And, before the 2011 election, when the Bloc Québécois held a majority of the Quebec seats in the federal Parliament, MPs from that party could have been relied upon to challenge any attempt by the Conservative government to meddle in their province's politics.

But Mr. Mulcair said his caucus is united in its opposition to the changes being put forward. And New Democrat MPs from Quebec said they stand with Mr. Mulcair on this issue.

Mr. Mulcair, a Montreal MP since 2007, was only the second NDP MP elected from the province before 2011's "orange wave" that gave the party a majority of Quebec's seats.

The New Democrats made a submission in 2007 to the Quebec commission that was studying reasonable accommodation and the party decided that its policy would follow the recommendations of that commission, said Guy Caron, MP for Rimouski-Neigette–Témiscouata–Les Basques.

What the Quebec government is proposing is "really very far from the recommendations," said Mr. Caron. "So it's easy for us to oppose. This is clearly something that goes against individual right," he said, "and there is a way to have this debate in Quebec without going as far as this charter (change) is going."

Mathieu Dube, the MP for Chambly-Borduas, said Mr. Mulcair's position reflected the will of the caucus. "We have really taken it upon ourselves to make sure that, as elected Quebeckers, that we don't play into this division and the us-versus-them debate," said Mr. Dube. "I don't think that's constructive for anyone."

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Pierre-Luc Dusseault, who represents Sherbrooke, said the Parti Québécois is presenting a solution to a false problem.

Before Mr. Mulcair delivered his speech, party operatives were suggesting that it would contain policy related to the economy or energy. In fact, there was little of that.

Like the Liberals, the New Democrats want to hold new policy ideas for unveiling during an election campaign.

Instead, the NDP Leader stuck to the script he has been working from since he took the helm of the party a year and a half ago.

But Mr. Mulcair did take almost as many jabs at the Liberals as he did at the Conservatives while he extolled the virtues of NDP values. A number of recent polls have suggested that the NDP has fallen to third place in public support and the Liberals have pushed ahead to first, which means the party will have to engage in a two-front attack when Parliament returns this fall.

The Liberals, under Leader Justin Trudeau, have been targeting their messages to the "middle class." But Mr. Mulcair laid much of the blame for the income gap between rich and poor at the feet of previous Liberal governments and said that has left middle-class families "teetering on the edge."

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