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Quebec Liberals dare PQ to call election over secular charter

Protesters in Montreal gathered this weekend to rally against a proposed ban on relgious garb.


Quebec's Liberal Leader is daring the Parti Québécois government to call an election over its secular charter as divisions intensify within the province, and with the rest of Canada, over a proposed ban on religious symbols in the public sector.

The PQ plan will become law "over my dead body," Philippe Couillard, Leader of Quebec's opposition Liberals, said Sunday at a party meeting on women's issues in Montreal. "The big mistake that the government is making is to make people believe that, in order to defend what is specific about Quebec, we must trample on other people's rights," he said, adding that the charter could be especially harmful toward immigrant women and that he would welcome women wearing the veil into his party.

A senior Montreal Muslim leader and protest organizer said he is "delighted" by the thousands who rallied in Montreal on the weekend in opposition to the proposed charter of values, which would ban the wearing of turbans, hijabs, skullcaps and large crosses for anyone working in the provincial public sector.

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Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said discussions are under way for another rally in Quebec City, along with letter-writing campaigns to Quebec politicians.

The Conservative federal government has also amplified its opposition to the charter.

"When Quebeckers begin to actually contemplate the idea that provincial bureaucrats might be getting out a tape measure to measure the size of people's crosses, to see whether or not their earring is too obviously religious – this gets to a point of almost Monty Python-esque absurdity," Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney told CTV's Question Period.

"And I don't think the majority of Quebeckers will support that kind of overbearing application of the power of the state on what is a benign and frankly innocuous exercise of peoples' basic liberty," he added.

But the Quebec minister responsible for selling the proposed charter insists that many in English Canada would welcome a similar discussion. "I think the rest of Canada is probably eager to have the same kind of debate we're having in Quebec," Bernard Drainville told the CBC, adding that "the Canadian political establishment should take stock of the fact that there's quite a few Canadians who agree with us."

Mr. Drainville pointed to a recent Forum Research poll showing 42 per cent of Canadians supported the charter's principle of prohibiting personal religious displays among public-sector workers, while 47 per cent opposed it.

But at least two campaigns are under way in Ontario to take advantage of unease in Quebec. Carmine Perrelli, a city councillor in Richmond Hill, Ont., plans to mail out letters to at least 200 Sikh, Muslim, Jewish or Catholic doctors who might consider moving out of Quebec as a result of the charter. "I can't see the reason for making someone choose between their religion and their occupation," Mr. Perrelli said in an interview.

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And Lakeridge Health, a hospital in Oshawa, Ont., recently published a recruitment ad in a McGill University newspaper featuring a woman wearing a pink head scarf and the tagline: "We don't care what's on your head. We care what's in it."

But proponents of the charter maintain that it is essential that publicly funded spaces reflect the secular nature of the Quebec government.

PQ Premier Pauline Marois leads a minority government. The proposed charter can only become law if she can secure the support of one of the two opposition parties.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault is open to a limited agreement with the PQ, provided that the ban on religious symbols is restricted to public servants in positions of authority.

Mr. Elmenyawi said one benefit of the proposed charter is that it is unifying disparate religious and cultural groups in opposition to it. "Maybe the good thing that's coming out right now, out of all of this, is this kind of unity and diversity that we see in the streets," he said.

With reports from Sahar Fatima and from The Canadian Press

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