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Politics Signs of revolt mount as French universities reject secular charter

Demonstrators march against Quebec's proposed secular charter in downtown Montreal on Sept. 29, 2013.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

Quebec's largest university is panning the province's secular charter as a useless measure, adding to signs of a growing revolt against the Parti Québécois's controversial bill.

The French-language University of Montreal is challenging the very basis of the government's argument for its legislation. When the minister responsible for the charter, Bernard Drainville, introduced it in September, he said it was meant to address a "crisis" over religious accommodations that had festered for years and created tensions in Quebec.

The U of M searched its human-resources files going back 20 years and found no incidents whatsoever involving conflicts over religious accommodations. Whatever minor incidents occurred were quickly settled by applying the university's internal rules, a spokesman said.

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The university decided at a meeting of faculty, student representatives and administrators on Monday that the government's legislation serves no purpose.

"It doesn't respond to our needs," the spokesman, Mathieu Filion, said on Tuesday. He said the university is not taking a formal position against the bill, and will present a brief at legislative hearings in the new year.

The Montreal university has 64,000 students – making it the biggest in the province – who come from 130 countries worldwide. Some would be subject to the ban on religious dress if they became researchers or teaching assistants, Mr. Filion said. The government legislation, Bill 60, would forbid state employees from wearing conspicuous symbols of their faith such as headscarves and kippas.

The head of the French-language University of Sherbrooke, Luce Samoisette, told a Montreal newspaper that the charter ban on religious symbols could not be applied. "It's not a good idea to do that," she is quoted as saying. If the law ever passed, it would create a situation in a research lab where a student on a bursary could wear a veil but a staff employee could not, she said.

The universities join a growing list of institutions and critics taking a stand against the charter, which has veered in recent weeks into an often acrimonious debate over the Muslim headscarf.

Hospitals, municipalities, former premiers and the Quebec human rights commission have come out against it. The English Montreal School Board, Jewish General Hospital and some Montreal-island municipalities say they would refuse to comply with it.

The law would apply not only to Quebec's civil service but to schools, hospitals and publicly funded daycares. Asked about the universities' stands on Tuesday, Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne defended his government's bill.

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"Universities are places to promote ideas and favour the transmission of knowledge, not to proselytize and promote religion. The directors of universities and university communities know it," he said in Quebec City.

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