Skip to main content

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau addresses supporters at a barn party at the home of Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay in St. Peters Bay, P.E.I. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau is under fire in Quebec for further escalating the debate over the Parti Québécois government's proposed secular charter, saying he has no regrets for linking the debate in Quebec to the civil rights battles over segregation in America in the 60s.

Mr. Trudeau's remarks have fired the debate over the secular charter, which the government of Premier Pauline Marois is not expected to unveil it until mid-September. The measures being considered reportedly include a prohition on state employees from wearing religious articles in schools, daycares, hospitals and other state workplaces.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau paid tribute to Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of his famous "I have a dream" speech, saying that Dr. King "refused segregation … denied discrimination … refused to allow [people] to believe that they were second-class citizens."

Continuing his speech before a crowd of about 1,500 supporters, Mr. Trudeau said, "We sadly see that even today, as we speak, for example of this idea of a Charter of Quebec Values, there are still those who believe that we have to choose between our religion and our Quebec identity, that there are people who are forced by the Quebec State to make irresponsible and inconceivable choices."

Mr. Trudeau's remarks were met with criticism by the governing Parti Québécois. Several ministers, as well as Premier Pauline Marois, said they want the discussion around their government's proposed charter to be respectful.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau's remarks "throw oil on the fire," Ms. Marois said.

"I don't agree with Mr. Trudeau's remarks. If there is a state that has been respectful of its minorities, respectful of people's freedom of religion, it's the Quebec state, and the government of the Parti Québécois in particular," she said.

Mr. Trudeau defended his comparison Thursday in Prince Edward Island. He clarified that he does not see a "direct parallel between segregation and the Quebec charter" that, according to media reports, would ban religious headgear and other visible religious symbols in provincial workplaces. "The parallel is certainly between the fight for openness and respect and acceptance of everything that everyone is and I am proud of where we have come and where we are as an open society and I intend to keep us as an open society and that is the opposition I have against this charter," he told reporters.

He added that his concern with the proposed Quebec charter is "that people are going to have to choose between their freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and their economic well-being and their acceptance in the workplace."

Bernard Drainville, the Minister in charge of bringing in this new charter, however, said Thursday that Mr. Trudeau should make an "effort to elevate the debate."

"There's a little bit of contempt in [Mr. Trudeau's comments] and I don't think it helps in the debate. We've already said that the tone of the debate will be as important as the substance of the debate. And I think if we are going to have a good debate, a harmonious debate, we should try to elevate the rhetoric," Mr. Drainville said on his way to a caucus meeting in Quebec.

Other PQ politicians referred to Mr. Trudeau's remarks as "narrow-minded" and "divisive."

Asked on Thursday about the matter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he has not yet seen a specific proposal and would therefore be cautious in his comments. He added that Quebec's separatist government "would love to pick fights with Ottawa, but that's not our business."

"Our job is social inclusion," Mr. Harper said. "Our job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel at home in this country and be Canadians."

He said the government plans to look carefully at the proposal to ensure it does not infringe on Canadians' fundamental rights.

Premier Pauline Marois said Mr. Trudeau's remarks "throw oil on the fire" in the debate, and the Liberal Leader should wait to see her government's Charter before commenting.

She insisted her government's charter of values, which will be unveiled in a few weeks, would not suppress religious freedoms. "We want to clarify the fact that the state should be neutral, which doesn't prevent people in a private space from practising their religion."

Quebec has long been exemplary in its protection of minorities, she added.

"If there is a state that has been respectful of its minorities, respectful of people's freedom of religion, it's the Quebec state, and the government of the Parti Québécois in particular," she said.

Meanwhile, the opposition Quebec Liberals appeared on Thursday to slam the door on the idea of banning religious symbols for public employees in the province.

In his most explicit comments on the issue to date, leader Philippe Couillard said Thursday that his party won't support measures to prohibit state employees from wearing religious articles state workplaces.

One Liberal minister hinted Wednesday the Liberal position on the contentious issue was " evolving." But Mr. Couillard rejected the suggestion.

"A position by definition always evolves, but it never evolves by sidelining fundamental values and principles," he said before a Liberal caucus meeting in Rivière-du-Loup.

With a report from Ingrid Peritz

Interact with The Globe