A government proposal to ban public servants from wearing religious garments and other symbols of faith has exposed deep fissures in Quebec, pitting Montreal against the province and some committed sovereigntists against the party that has driven their movement for 45 years.
Mayors on the island of Montreal formed a unanimous chorus denouncing the Parti Québécois plan to ban turbans, veils and other "conspicuous" religious symbols from publicly funded workplaces. They joined the majority of Quebec pundits, business leaders, intellectuals and civic groups who blasted the charter as a plan that would provoke quarrels and drive immigrants – especially Muslim women – out of the work force while allowing many Christian symbols to stand.
Even a separatist member of Parliament from Montreal railed against her allies in the provincial government, saying the charter is already doing "grave damage" to the independence movement.
The issue may also be exposing a split between ordinary Quebeckers and elites. While only a handful of people with high public profiles supported the PQ proposal, polls conducted before the charter was introduced showed a majority of Quebeckers supported the idea.
But the political leadership of 1.8 million Quebeckers living on the island of Montreal stood united Wednesday against the government's charter.
Mayors for the on-island suburbs met for a regularly scheduled meeting and quickly found unanimity on the question, said Philippe Roy, mayor of Town of Mount Royal. All major candidates vying for mayor in November's election have already denounced the charter's proposals.
"We represent towns that are majority anglophone, majority Jewish, and majority francophone, like mine, but we rapidly came to an agreement: This charter is unacceptable for Montreal," Mr. Roy said. "To reach unanimity like that, east-to-west in Montreal, is exceptional. But we're all sending the same signal to Quebec – this is not representative of what Montreal is."
PQ Premier Pauline Marois said Wednesday she is "proud" of the charter, but opposition is coming from some of her own allies. A group of 18 staunch sovereigntists, including Bloc MP Maria Mourani, issued an open letter decrying the PQ move, saying it "stigmatizes certain communities, especially women" and "pointlessly divides the population."
"Whether they like it or not, they are discriminating against minorities. It has never been easy to convince people from ethno-cultural groups that the independence movement is inclusive. The signal here is not very encouraging," Ms. Mourani said.
"In terms of strategy, this is grave. Independence is not going to happen without including everyone. And it most certainly isn't going to happen without Montreal."
The government did find support from the union representing 42,000 provincial civil servants, which has called for a secular charter for years.
Union president Lucie Martineau drew a parallel between the measures and those introduced in the late 1960s to forbid overt signs of political allegiance in the public service.
"We are for the neutrality of the state," Ms. Martineau said. "People can [practise their religion] outside working hours. The state is secular."
Ms. Martineau was unable to say what percentage of her members wore religious symbols and stood to be affected by the new measures.
Ms. Martineau also said her union had a duty to represent all its public employees, though she would not specify if it would fight to defend staffers who might face dismissal over their religious garb.
Business leaders say they are afraid much damage is already being done, especially outside of Canada, where they often try to recruit.
"Outside of Quebec, where these companies are trying to attract talent, it is already perceived as a sign of intolerance," said Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.
Mr. Leblanc stated that the chamber has been advocating for a more open immigration policy. "This charter is in contradiction with everything we've been working for," he said.
Liberal opposition Leader Philippe Couillard blasted the PQ measures as "narrow and vindictive" and not worthy of a party once led by René Lévesque, the independence leader now admired on all sides of partisan politics in Quebec.
"They are trying to create an impression among francophones that we are under seige. We are not like that," he said. "Quebeckers do not like quarrels, especially among Quebeckers."
With a report from Sophie Cousineau in Montreal