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People wear religious headwear during a gathering in Montreal on Jan. 12, 2014, to oppose the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.GRAHAM HUGHES/The Canadian Press

On Tuesday, a National Assembly committee will begin hearings on Quebec's secular charter bill, setting off another round of fiery public debate over freedom of conscience and religion versus gender equality. The proposals tabled by the Parti Québécois minority government – which include prohibiting public servants from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab, kippa or crucifix – have deeply divided Quebeckers, even within the sovereignty movement.

More than 250 individuals and groups have submitted briefs, and most requested to appear before the committee. With more than 200 hours set aside for the submissions, the hearings will last several weeks and could become a backdrop to an early spring election. Some groups and individuals have influenced the debate, even though they may not appear before the committee.


The commission has prepared an extensive report that says the proposed secular charter would violate the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The commission has said the ban would infringe on an individual's freedom of religion and conscience and prevent many people, mainly women, from getting public-sector jobs. It said the courts would likely invalidate the PQ proposal. "It is unreasonable to presume the partiality of a public sector employee due to the simple fact that he or she wears a religious symbol," commission president Jacques Frémont said last October. As for the claim that the secular charter would increase protection against gender discrimination, the commission contends Quebec's Charter of Rights and Freedoms already does so.


The group's submission is being kept under wraps and could be questioned since the PQ government nominated four members to its board who support the secular charter. Its president, Julie Miville-Dechêne, accused the PQ of undermining the council's independence at a time when it was about to evaluate the impact of a ban on religious symbols. "There are no studies. We don't even know the number of civil servants who wear a veil," Ms. Miville-Dechêne said at the height of the controversy over the nominations. "Above all, we don't even know what these women will do when confronted with the obligation to take off their veil. Will they feel liberated or, on the contrary, will they feel obliged by their husbands or entourage to quit their job and stay at home?"


The feminist group is among the more vocal opponents of the secular charter, saying it would promote the exclusion of women rather than gender equality. When the bill was tabled last November, the group's president, Alexa Conradi, accused the government of formalizing discrimination against women in the public sector, one of the main employers of female workers in the province. According to the federation, the public debate sparked a high degree of intolerance toward Muslim women, creating social tensions where none had existed. However, not all feminists agreed: Dissidents from the organization created a splinter group called Pour des droits des femmes du Québec that supports a ban on religious symbols. The group stressed the need to fight fundamentalism and the oppression of women by radical religious groups.


This movement sprouted in reaction to opposition to the secular charter by some feminist groups. Their submission before the National Assembly committee will be closely monitored. Popular television host and author Janette Bertrand was an early symbol of women's liberation in the province. She joined another television host, Julie Snyder, to launch a pro-secular-charter movement that quickly caught the imagination of Quebeckers. Several thousand signed a petition in favour of the PQ initiative and marched in Montreal to denounce the oppression of women through the re-emergence of the kind of male-dominated religious values that existed when the Catholic church ruled society in Quebec. The attacks were mainly aimed at Muslim groups that require women to wear a veil. "At the prospect of a return to the past, I felt the need to speak out. I agree that we need a charter of Quebec values, often called a secular charter," Ms. Bertrand wrote in launching the movement.


In a rare show of force, federalist and sovereigntist academics, professionals and citizen groups banded together in support of secularism but in opposition to the charter and the PQ government's handling of it. The group said the PQ used a few "anecdotal"and "sensationalized" incidents of religious accommodation to create fear for the survival of Quebec's identity. "It is with regret that we observe that our government seeks to exploit this fear for electoral purposes," the group wrote in a manifesto last fall. It urged the government to build a consensus that would not raise fears it has racist or xenophobic intentions. They warned the government that it was on a slippery slope, using populist arguments for political gain without considering the damage it will cause to Quebec society.


The province's most important labour organization, the Quebec Federation of Labour, argued that the secular charter would place unions in contravention of their duty to protect their members' jobs. They contend that no public employee should be required to quit a job for wearing a religious symbol. The Conseil du patronat, the province's powerful pro-business lobby group, expressed concerns that the debate would harm the province's image abroad and discourage investments. The Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce argued that mounting social tensions created by the bill would harm the recruitment of workers from outside the province. All major labour and business groups will express their views during the process.


Some prominent figures will not testify before the committee but have influenced several of those who will appear. These include sociologist Gérard Bouchard, who co-chaired a commission on religious accommodation with another prominent intellectual, Charles Taylor. In a bitter attack, Mr. Bouchard accused the minister responsible for the secular charter, Bernard Drainville, of lying and manipulating public opinion. "Lies and distortions: Without relying on any studies, Minister Drainville repeats that the practice of religious accommodations violates Quebec values such as the equality between men and women," Mr. Bouchard wrote in a letter published in La Presse and Le Soleil newspapers. Former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry also expressed less harsh reservations last fall. Mr. Parizeau urged Premier Pauline Marois to reconsider the ban on religious symbols, which he said should be limited to those exercising coercive powers, such as judges and police, as recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor commission.

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