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Tories gear up for constitutional fight as parties unite against PQ’s charter

‘Freedom of religion is a fundamental, universal value inscribed in our own Constitution, and this government will defend it vigorously,’ Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said on Sept. 10, 2013, in response to Quebec’s proposed charter of values.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government is girding for a constitutional battle with the separatist Parti Québécois government, vowing to launch a Charter challenge of Quebec's plans to ban religious symbols in the province's civil service.

Ottawa remained relatively quiet as the Marois government floated details of its proposal in recent weeks, but the Conservative government and the major federal opposition parties quickly blasted the proposal for a Charter of Quebec Values after its formal release on Tuesday.

The united front on the federal stage stands to play in the hands of the PQ, which has insisted that its proposal to impose a secular public service is part of a uniquely Québécois model of integrating immigrants, at odds with the multicultural model in the rest of Canada.

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The federal parties took their stands despite the risk the PQ proposal will be popular in parts of Quebec where they will try to win or hold on to their seats in the next election. Still, the parties can take solace in the fact the Bloc Québécois did not fully endorse the PQ proposal, stating the ban on religious symbols could be limited to law-enforcement figures.

Shortly after the PQ proposal was made public, Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said his government will not hesitate to enforce the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stating it defends "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

"We would challenge any law that we deem unconstitutional, that violates the fundamental constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion," Mr. Kenney said.

The Conservative position was echoed by the NDP and the Liberal Party of Canada, which called on Quebec Premier Pauline Marois to back down from her plans to prevent provincial workers from wearing hijabs, kippas, turbans and other highly visible religious symbols on the job.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the PQ proposal amounts to "state-mandated discrimination," while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the plan is part of "divisive identity politics."

In Quebec City, the lead minister on the Charter of Values, Bernard Drainville, said he is confident that the legislation will respect the Constitution. He added it is up to the population and elected officials – and not the courts – to speak on the matter at this point.

"Let's allow the National Assembly to speak, let's let Quebeckers, through their elected officials, decide to give themselves a religiously neutral government," he said. "Afterward, we don't know what will happen."

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Many experts argue that the Charter of Values, in its current form, violates the Canadian Constitution. Mr. Kenney said that if the proposed charter is adopted, it will be referred to the Department of Justice for a legal opinion. Ottawa could launch a direct challenge to the Quebec Superior Court, and the matter could end up in front of the Supreme Court of Canada.

In Saskatoon, Mr. Mulcair said his New Democrats will be standing firm against the Quebec proposal.

"Suffice it to say that the text confirms our worst fears," said the NDP Leader. "We're categorical in rejecting this approach. Human rights don't have a best before date. They're not temporary and they're not a popularity contest."

Mr. Trudeau made his comments in Montreal, stating that the Marois government is trying to stoke unnecessary battles with the rest of Canada, predicting that Quebeckers will "push back very hard" against the Charter.

"We believe it is important to defend people's freedoms, not restrict them," he said.

Bloc Leader Daniel Paillé said his party will take time to come up with a formal position , but that it will be clearly different from the one adopted by his federalist adversaries.

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"We are against multiculturalism," he said in an interview.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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