Skip to main content

Bernard Drainville, shown in January, 2012, is the Parti Québécois government’s point man on a new secularism charter for the province.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois government will unveil its controversial secular charter under the more "positive" title Charter of Quebec Values next fall, postponing what is expected to be heated debate on religious accommodations.

The Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions, Bernard Drainville, said he hoped that widening the scope of the secular charter – which was originally scheduled to be released next month – will help the PQ minority government seek a compromise with opposition parties on the contentious issue.

"It will not only provide clear rules and a framework on how to manage religious accommodations, it will also affirm a number of values to which a vast majority of Quebecers adhere such as the equality between men and women, the equality of citizens notwithstanding origins, religion or mother tongue," Mr. Drainville said. "I am confident we can have this debate in a respectful manner, in a serene manner."

Yet just last week Mr. Drainville was among those who sparked a debate on reasonable accommodations, this time involving Montreal's Hasidic Jews. The minister said he opposed a decision by the Montreal borough of Outremont to lift parking restrictions on streets near a synagogue during a Jewish holiday. Mr. Drainville argued against giving a religious community privileges that were denied other groups, even though such an accommodation in Outremont had been allowed for decades.

The incident convinced the Liberal opposition that, even under a different name, the secular charter will only serve to divide Quebeckers.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard questioned the need to revisit the issue of religious accommodations and potentially fan the flames of intolerance.

"If the aim explicitly or not is to divide Quebeckers again I am not in agreement at all," Mr. Couillard said. "This issue about lifting a parking ban was no accommodation at all. It was an agreement between communities at the local level."

During last year's election campaign, PQ Leader Pauline Marois promised a secular charter that would bar civil servants from wearing overt religious symbols. Yet while arguing the need to rid public institutions of religious symbols, the PQ said it would allow the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly to remain in full public view over the Speaker's chair. The crucifix would remain in place as part of Quebec's heritage, the PQ insisted.

The contradictions in the PQ policy drew fire from all sides. And even changing the name of the secular charter did little to appease opposition concerns.

"It doesn't make me feel more comfortable when we say a Charter of Quebec Values," said Kathleen Veil, Liberal opposition critic for employment and social economy. "Whose values? Don't we all share the same values in a free and democratic society? Don't we have a Charter of Rights?"

Mr. Drainville argued the need to adopt a Charter of Quebec Values by the end of the year in order to put an end to the debate over religious accommodations. He said that for too long the issue has remained unresolved, noting that it has been five years since the Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodations was tabled. The minister then produced a public opinion poll showing that two-third of Quebeckers view religious accommodations as an "important" or "very important" problem that should be settled soon.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec party accused the PQ of again backpedalling on a major issue, insisting that it should have been resolved years ago under the former Liberal government.

"For years the Liberal government was irresponsible for refusing to regulate religious accommodations. The PQ promised a position this spring. It won't do it. … It is another reversal by this government," said CAQ Leader François Legault, who has nonetheless left the door open to a possible compromise.

"We will take a clear stand when we see the document," Mr. Legault said.