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HindustanTimes Thu,31 Jul 2014

Quebec identity debate heats up as religious symbols face restrictions

Vancouverdesi.com   Montreal, August 21, 2013
First Published: 17:18 IST(21/8/2013) | Last Updated: 17:26 IST(21/8/2013)

Quebec has launched its next debate on minority accommodation — and this one could make the erstwhile soccer-turban ban look like a leisurely stroll down the pitch.

The government is preparing to introduce long-awaited, controversial legislation that would restrict religious symbols in numerous places.

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A media report on Tuesday with leaked details of the Parti Quebecois government’s “Charter of Quebec Values”, said that the proposed policy will prohibit public employees from donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear or visible crucifixes in the workplace.

The newspaper report said the PQ government is set to restrict public-sector workers in places like daycares, schools and hospitals from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, niqabs, kippas, hijabs and highly visible crucifixes. Some institutions, however, will be free to request exemptions from the government, according to the report.

The particulars drew swift condemnation from political adversaries and human rights activists.

The Parti Quebecois minority government hopes to cash in at the ballot box by championing a “secularism” plan that polls have suggested has considerable support in the province.

So the fiery debate that erupted over a recent ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields offered a sneak-peek of what could be in the political pipeline for the national assembly’s fall session.

The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure that included unflattering headlines abroad. Inside Quebec, however, Premier Pauline Marois rushed to the defence of the soccer federation and accused its detractors of Quebec-bashing.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard has dismissed the idea in the past and shrugged it off Tuesday as a “trial balloon” while Coalition leader Francois Legault criticised the Marois government for going too far, saying he would try to propose a middle-ground solution that falls between the approaches of the PQ and Liberals.

Civil-rights expert Charles Taylor, who co-presided over Quebec’s 2007 commission on the accommodation of minorities, told ‘The Canadian Press’ such measures would have a devastating impact on Quebec’s reputation in the world and he feared it would keep entire communities out of public-sector jobs because of their religious convictions.

 “If we look at what is proposed here, for sure it does not go as far, but it says that if you have certain convictions you are a second-class citizen because those who have such convictions cannot apply for (a job) in the public sector,” he said.

The province, he added, would isolate itself if the PQ government digs in and moves forward with the policy.

Condemning the move, Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey said that if the Marois government drives forward with the legislation it would likely face court challenges under the Charter of Rights.

The PQ has already said it wouldn’t hesitate to fight the courts on the matter, including using the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to override any verdict.

Past opinion polls have suggested such policies enjoy broad public support with voters in Quebec. A majority have told pollsters they supported the turban ban and also viewed hijabs and kippas as a cultural threat.

What’s less clear is how the policy will hold up in the long term, in two key areas: the court system, and the ballot box.

There’s no guarantee the minority government could get the policy through the legislature or win an election on it.

In the legislature, the policy would need the support of one major opposition party and both the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Quebec have reacted coolly — especially the Liberals. There’s no evidence yet that the issue is an election-winner, either.

Even if the PQ’s approach proves popular, other polls suggest that only a minuscule sliver of Quebec voters actually care about this as an election issue — and that what really drives the Quebec electorate are issues like health care, education and the economy.

The Marois government has since rebranded the plan as a charter of “Quebec values” — with those values including gender equality and secularism.

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