Not only has the Parti Québécois government dismissed opposition to its secular charter (including from three former PQ premiers and Quebec's human-rights commission), but the bill that finally emerged from two months of stormy public debate is even tougher than originally outlined, thus excluding any possibility of compromise with the province's opposition parties.
Such inflexibility, coming from a minority government, would be truly incomprehensible – unless the government actually wants the bill to be defeated, which it does. The PQ intends to keep the unadopted bill simmering until the next election, when it will ask voters for a majority so that it can implement the charter, which is favoured by many old-stock francophones worried by immigration from Muslim countries.
The government will be using three other unadopted bills for the same purpose – to claim that it cannot govern because of systematic opposition obstruction. However, in all these cases, the government refused any compromise with the Coalition Avenir Québec, the mildly nationalist third party that was willing to collaborate. The sacrificed bills are for a new policy on mining, a moratorium on shale-gas exploration and a strengthening of Quebec's language law – another key piece of the identity platform that will be at the heart of the PQ's next campaign.
The party tried for a while but has now renounced its effort to attract the non-francophone voters it needed to win a majority for sovereignty (an elusive goal if there ever was one) and has unabashedly returned to playing the identity card, a strategy aimed at reinforcing its core support by appealing to nationalist passions.
If it wins a majority, Premier Pauline Marois's government will unfold the second part of the strategy, hoping that its identity legislation will inflame the political climate, provoke an angry backlash in the rest of Canada and eventually push a majority of francophones to react by voting Yes to another sovereignty referendum. The sovereigntists will argue that "English Canada" and the federal government are imposing values alien to Quebec (multiculturalism, for instance) and depriving Quebec of the right to adopt the policies it needs for its cultural survival.
The explosive content of the charter bill took even the most vocal adversaries of the project by surprise.
The ban on religious symbols, first limited to the public sector, the school system and health services, now extends to private enterprises that do business with the government as well as to subsidized cultural institutions and voluntary associations. This means that a book editor, a receptionist at an art museum or staff for a community organization or private confessional school might be forbidden to wear religious symbols at work.
The bill walks back the possibility of renewable exemptions for municipalities and institutions, such as hospitals and universities. And it goes as far as to forbid halal and kosher food from daycare kitchens if they're "advancing a religious precept."
As for the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly room, it might be moved elsewhere in the building if MNAs decide to do so.
Philippe Couillard, the leader of the Liberal Official Opposition, called the bill "a frontal assault on our freedoms," and many Quebec groups are prepared to challenge the charter in court if it ever becomes law. But will it? This depends on the outcome of the next election.