Major businesses in Quebec are calling on the Parti Québécois government to withdraw its controversial secular charter bill, saying it is creating a climate of intolerance and exclusion toward immigrants that is harmful in attracting investments and workers to the province.
In a brief presented during public hearings on the bill on Thursday, the province's influential business lobby group Conseil du patronat argued that 97 per cent of the major employers it surveyed said they experienced no problems with respect to religious accommodations. The debate over religious symbols was a non-issue, the lobby group said.
The PQ's Bill 60 would prohibit public servants from wearing overt religious symbols such as a hijab, a kippa or a crucifix. The group asked that the government produce studies, data and factual arguments to support the need for this type of regulation.
The business lobby argued that the government legislation was based exclusively on perceptions and anecdotes and has created debate that has hindered the prosperity of Quebec.
"The economy is already going very bad. I'm not saying there will be a severe economic impact. It's already bad. The only thing we know is that it won't help to recover and improve the economic situation," said Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Conseil du patronat.
The Quebec economy has been hard hit in recent weeks with a number of announced layoffs by Bombardier Inc. and Sears. Job creation and attracting new investments have become major concerns in a province that has been struggling with a higher-than-expected deficit and heavy public debt load.
Mr. Dorval argued that the main priority for Quebec employers involved attracting, recruiting and retaining the best qualified people for their companies. But the secular charter bill was doing just the opposite by creating more barriers to achieving this goal, he said.
The Conseil du patronat represents 75,000 private and public sector employersin the province. The minister responsible for the secular charter bill, Bernard Drainville, accused the group of fear-mongering.
"When Bill 101 [the French Language Charter] came out [in 1977], the Conseil du patronat was strongly against it. It used the same arguments as today saying that it would harm the economy. Can anyone seriously claim today that Bill 101 harms the economy?" Mr. Drainville said Thursday.
However, Mr. Dorval said later he went back and looked at the statements the lobby group had expressed in 1977 and found nothing to corroborate the minister's charges.
"The Conseil du patronat was not aggressive [at the time], it didn't claim it would be the end of the world on the economy … It showed the willingness to co-operate and find the best solution, pragmatic solutions," Mr. Dorval said.
Some of the Conseil du patronat members have taken their case to the public in a campaign that has slammed the PQ's bill as part of an anti-business climate created by the government.
The president and CEO of the cable and media company Cogeco Inc., Louis Audet, said in a speech this week that the bill was creating fear among immigrants and would cost the province jobs and investments if adopted. A similar message has been delivered by other business leaders.
Quebec is undergoing a major demographic change with an aging population and shortage of skilled labour, business leaders have argued. The bill won't create chaos, the business lobby group argued but it does nothing to help meet the challenges facing Quebec.
"Help us attract and retain labour rather than adopt regulations that create obstacles to doing this," Mr. Dorval said during his appearance before the National Assembly committee.