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Quebec Liberal Leader rethinks stand on religious-symbols ban

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard announces his candidacy for the by-election in Outremont riding at a news conference on Nov. 6, 2013.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has reversed his position on the Parti Québécois' proposed secular charter and will now consider a ban on overt religious symbols for some public servants in positions of authority.

The lone dissident voice of Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin prompted Mr. Couillard to reconsider his views on the issue. Ms. Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman in the Quebec National Assembly, emerged from a caucus meeting on Tuesday victorious in having persuaded her colleagues to consider a ban on fundamentalist religious symbols that she says oppress women.

Mr. Couillard remained adamant that his leadership was never challenged. He argued that the only way he would accept a ban on overt religious symbols for some government officials in a position of authority, such as judges, police, prosecutors and jail guards, was if it was compatible with the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms.

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"We are so attached to liberties and freedoms that we will never accept any infringement on freedoms," Mr. Couillard said as he stood side by side with Ms. Houda-Pepin as a show of party unity. "We won't reach a conclusion today on what is called the coercive agents of the state [those in position of authority]. We want to look at it again but in total accordance with the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]."

Ms. Houda-Pepin insisted that the protection of individual rights should not pave the way for fundamentalists to dictate religious rights. She has been working since 2011 on drafting a bill on secularism, which until Tuesday her party had refused to examine.

The only restriction the Liberals were willing to consider was that individuals who give or receive government services have to do so with their face uncovered.

When a Liberal caucus member said last week that even the chador, a long cloak that leaves the face uncovered and is worn mainly in Iraq and Saudi Arabia shouldn't be banned, Ms. Houda-Pepin spoke out publicly against her party. For her, the chador was a symbol of religious fundamentalism and female oppression that defied Liberal values.

Her public outburst put Mr. Couillard's leadership to the test. Rather than expel Ms. Houda-Pepin, the Liberal Leader accepted to work with her.

"I am a Liberal and I am loyal to the Liberal Party of Quebec," Ms. Houda-Pepin said. "We are trying to evaluate the ban through the validity of the Charter of Rights. There is no harm in doing that."

Constitutional expert and former Liberal minister Benoît Pelletier agrees that the party should not be deterred by a potential legal challenge to a ban. "The important thing is to have a debate … and keep in mind that individual rights are not absolute rights," Mr. Pelletier said in a Radio-Canada interview.

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The Liberals may go as far as to embrace the recommendation of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodations, which recommends a ban on religious symbols for some public servants in position of authority. The Coalition Avenir Québec as well as the Québec Solidaire party support that view, which could mean a common front by the opposition against the PQ minority government.

"But I want to be very clear on something. I would not got go to one of those meetings [with other opposition parties] to barter our rights and freedoms," Mr. Couillard said.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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