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A woman wears a niqab as she walks in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

What is wrong with this picture? Two child-care workers take six of their young charges out for a stroll on a chilly day.

The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing. But when the two daycare workers in question are wearing niqabs, and the stroll is taking place on the streets of Verdun in Southwest Montreal, things can get ugly.

One passerby found the scene so repugnant that she snapped a picture on Nov. 15 and posted it on Facebook. The photo quickly went viral, drawing an avalanche of shock from online posters and newspaper columnists. This charged atmosphere is largely the creation of the Parti Québécois government, whose anti-religious, Charter of Values bill has made it open season on minority religious displays that make the majority uneasy.

Story continues below advertisement

Bill 60 has not yet been passed by Quebec's National Assembly. And if it is, it will surely be struck down by a constitutional challenge. But the PQ has fostered a mindset that is feeding an atmosphere of intolerance. The consequences of that are very real.

The owners of the daycare in Verdun now say they are worried about racially motivated attacks. Parents, understandably, share those concerns, and have begun to withdraw their children, which could force the centre to shut down. The day after the photo was published, the daycare was visited by government inspectors, suddenly concerned over whether the number of children there exceeded the limit. (It didn't.)

All of this fuss, over what? A private, unsubsidized daycare, whose staff wouldn't even be subject to Bill 60. It seeks to impose its ridiculous dress codes only on the public sector.

Parents chose to send their children this daycare. No one is forced. If parents have no problem having their three-year-olds minded by women who cover their faces when in public, why should anyone else?

But motivating its voter base by sowing outrage is a big part of the PQ's electoral strategy. Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, reacted to the photo in typical fashion: "This is shocking, this is troubling, this is not acceptable," he said. Mr. Drainville is now contemplating applying Bill 60 to private institutions. Is there no end to this madness?

In an open letter, 13 parents with children enrolled in the daycare defended the workers: "Their niqab is, in our eyes, a decision that is their own. The important thing, for us and our children, is who they are as people." Apparently that's not what matters most to the PQ. A religious symbol is all it can see.

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