Quebec's only elected Muslim woman was axed from the Liberal caucus after refusing to support her party's decision to reject the prohibition of religious symbols in the public sector.
Fatima Houda-Pepin was forced out of the Liberal caucus after insisting that certain public-sector employees, such as police officers, judges, prosecutors and correctional officers, should be barred from wearing religious symbols as a means to ensure state neutrality.
The dissidence comes on a day when a public opinion poll showed increased support for the Parti Québécois, fuelling speculation that Premier Pauline Marois will call an election earlier rather than later. The poll puts the PQ in majority-government territory with a growing number of Quebeckers supporting the secular charter bill.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard argued that prohibiting public servants from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab, kippa or crucifix, would amount to a violation of religious freedom guaranteed under Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms. Ms. Houda-Pepin said she was excluded because of her refusal to compromise on her view that certain religious garments, such as the chador, are a symbol of submission imposed on women by Muslim fundamentalists and should be banned in certain public-sector jobs.
"I feel very sorry because I am a strong Liberal and a strong federalist. I worked so hard for the Liberal party for almost 20 years. So there is no space for me," Ms. Houda-Pepin said at the conclusion the caucus meeting.
After refusing to follow the party, she will now sit as an Independent. "I cannot defend the party line. I can't live with that."
In an effort to project a show of unity, Mr. Couillard emerged from the four-hour caucus meeting surrounded by his MNAs saying that while he regretted Ms. Houda-Pepin's decision to quit caucus, there was no alternative.
"All of us asked her to stay. … This is not a happy event," Mr. Couillard said. "We saw that we could not arrive at an agreement on a very fundamental issue and that this had to happen."
Ms. Houda-Pepin's dissension within the Liberal caucus was a major factor in the party's flip-flopping regarding the PQ minority government's secular charter bill. The Liberals will finally make their detailed position public on Tuesday as the hearings on the secular charter bill enter their second week. Mr. Couillard is anxious to put criticism over his party's wavering position behind him. "The buck stops here. … From now on the position we adopt will be the one we will defend," he said as he entered the caucus meeting.
Mr. Couillard's hesitation to adopt a clear position on the proposed ban of overt religious symbols in the public sector has cost his party dearly in popular support.
A Léger marketing poll conducted for the QMI news agency and released on Monday showed the PQ with its strongest support since winning the 2012 election.
The survey showed the PQ at 36 per cent, ahead of the Liberals at 33 per cent, with the Coalition Avenir Québec trailing at 17 per cent, one of its lowest scores ever. Among francophone voters, who decide the outcome of elections in the province, the PQ holds a commanding lead with 43 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for the Liberals. The poll numbers indicate that a majority PQ government is a now a real possibility.
The gradual rise in PQ support over the last few weeks has corresponded to a similar increase in favour of the secular charter. According to the poll, 48 per cent backed the bill. Sixty per cent supported the most contentious provision in the legislation, calling for a ban on overt religious symbols by public-sector employees.
Growing PQ support has facilitated the party's efforts at recruiting star candidates and boosted party confidence in winning several predominantly francophone ridings held by the faltering CAQ. Former Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette confirmed he will run for the PQ in the riding of L'Assomption currently held by CAQ Leader François Legault.
Léger Marketing queried 1,207 Quebeckers as part of an online polling panel. Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online polls.