No region in Canada can claim to be entirely free from prejudice toward minorities. In Quebec the issue is more politically charged, because of the province's own cultural and linguistic minority status within the country. That makes it all the more important for leaders there to encourage tolerance. Quebeckers need to be reassured that protecting the province's distinct identity and respecting the rights of Muslims, Jews and other religious groups are not mutually exclusive goals.
Unfortunately, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, who is currently leading in the polls, has spent much of the election campaign doing just the opposite – most notably with her promise of a "secularism charter."
The charter would ban religious signs from liquor stores, tax-collection offices and other provincial institutions, and prohibit employees from wearing turbans and skull caps. Tellingly, however, an exception would be made for the crucifix – including the one in the National Assembly – which the party considers a symbol of Quebec's heritage.
Such legislation would not only sow the seeds of division in a province struggling with the assimilation of immigrants; it would also contravene the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion. No wonder Ms. Marois has already said she would invoke the notwithstanding clause, since the bill would be unlikely to survive a legal challenge.
Wearing a kippah or turban does not in any way trample on the rights of secular Quebeckers. There simply is no evidence that immigrants are "imposing their values" on the province, in the words of Jean Tremblay, the Mayor of Saguenay. He questioned why PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib, an immigrant of Algerian heritage, had the right to tell Quebeckers how to behave, prompting Ms. Marois to denounce his remarks. However, her condemnation doesn't carry much weight, given that her own proposals would create a more toxic environment for minorities.
The party's proposed new "Bill 101" is equally unconstructive. It aims to restrict the ability of adults to attend English-language colleges, because the PQ is concerned about the decrease in Quebeckers who have French as their mother tongue.
Ms. Marois should consider the impact of her foray into identity politics. If she ends up being elected premier, her priority will be to improve the economy, health care and education. And to do this, she will have to attract the best and brightest to Quebec – and not scare them away.