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Religious rights controversy will spread across Canada, PQ minister warns

Bernard Drainville says Canada’s multiculturalism policies could be called into question in debate over rights.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The controversy over religious accommodation is spilling across Quebec's borders, Parti Québécois Minister Bernard Drainville says, warning that a fractious debate lies ahead.

Mr. Drainville said the rest of Canada will have to address the issue of religious accommodation and seek solutions similar to those Quebec wants to apply. He predicted the country's multiculturalism policies could be called into question.

"The debate over multiculturalism is going to catch up with them. They won't be able to avoid it. There will be more cases like the one we saw in Toronto," Mr. Drainville said.

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A furor erupted this week over a request from a York University student to be exempted from interacting with female classmates on religious grounds. The minister applauded professor Paul Grayson's refusal to grant the request because he felt such a precedent could be used to justify sexism. The school's dean of arts ordered the professor to accommodate the student.

Quebec is in the midst of a divisive debate over gender equality rights and religious freedom. Mr. Drainville tabled a proposed secular charter in the National Assembly last November aimed at restricting religious accommodation by reinforcing the principle of equality between men and women. The legislation would prohibit public servants from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab, kippa or crucifix. A National Assembly committee will begin more than 200 hours of public debate on the bill on Tuesday and review more than 250 briefs.

"The debate in Quebec is opening the eyes of many people in the rest of Canada," Mr. Drainville said in a telephone interview on Friday. "They are becoming aware that they have the same problem as us. A lot of people have been afraid to speak out against unreasonable accommodations made to religious groups by public institutions … and who are now saying, 'Enough is enough.'"

The minister said religious beliefs should not take precedence over gender equality. "Thanks to the Quebec debate, we will see more and more people like Prof. Grayson stand up for gender equality in the face of unreasonable religious demands," Mr. Drainville said.

He said politicians in the rest of Canada underestimate many Canadians' level of frustration over religious accommodation and will need to find a way to allow people to express their views.

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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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