The suggestion that the Parti Québécois government wants to ban public sector workers from wearing religious symbols or dress has provoked a storm of reaction.
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Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who met formally in Quebec City with Premier Pauline Marois for the first time on Wednesday, predicts there will be a "very strong backlash here in Quebec" against her government's proposed legislation.
'To force people ... to decide between their job and their religion or decide whether or not they are Quebecers first or Muslim first — for me, that's not a question we should be asking people to think about, as Canadians or as Quebecers'—Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau
The provincial government has so far refused to confirm the details leaked to the Journal de Montréal, which reported Tuesday that Marois will introduce a "Charter of Quebec values" — prohibiting public employees from wearing large Christian crosses or donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear in the workplace.
In their private meeting, however, Trudeau said Marois assured him "that indeed the preliminary reports and rumours that are out there are the general direction the government intends to go."
He said the plan is to debate those proposals through public consultations in the fall.
"I know there will be a lot of people who will be strongly expressing their very real concerns with the direction this government wants to take this province," Trudeau said.
"To force people into a situation where they have to decide between their job and their religion or decide whether or not they are Quebecers first or Muslim first — for me, that's not a question we should be asking people to think about, as Canadians or as Quebecers."
Ban on headwear would force some to flee Quebec
Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja, an emergency room physician in Montreal, says his turban has never been an issue at work.
"I've been raised here in Montreal, and it never actually crossed my mind to leave," he said. "I might have to, because I'm not going to give up my identity for my job."
A spokeswoman for the Quebec Associaiton of Private Daycares, Mona Lisa Farinacci-Borrega, said in her industry, banning all religious headwear could make it hard to find workers.
"How are we going to get them?" she asked. "If an educator for some reason is putting a little cross or wearing a kerchief on [her] hair, what's the problem? I really, really don't see it."
No place for 'religious propaganda'
However, Michel Lincourt of the Mouvement laïque québécois, a group promoting secularism in the province, said religious symbols are a form of religious propaganda and have no place in the civil service — or in schools and daycares.
"The school is where you create citizens with the same feeling, the same awareness of their civic duties, their civic responsibilities and their civic rights," Lincourt said.
'If they want to integrate themselves, they should accept the laws of the community'—Michel Lincourt of the Mouvement laïque québécois
To those who worry a ban such as the one the government is proposing would ostracize people of many religious faiths, Lincourt says that's the wrong way of looking at the situation.
"If they want to integrate themselves, they should accept the laws of the community," he said.
It's an emotional issue for many Quebecers on both sides of the secularism issue — perhaps especially for lapsed Catholics who still recall the days before the Quiet Revolution when the Roman Catholic church played such a dominant role.
"Quebecers got out of a period of fairly religious austerity for many years and sort of wanted to liberate themselves," said Christian Bourque, vice-president of the polling firm Léger Marketing. "So basically whenever they see the expression of religious symbols, it's almost as if [they're asking] 'Why don't you liberate yourself from that?'"
The minority PQ government is expected to reveal the details of its proposed secularism charter this fall.
However, with both the Liberal Official Opposition and Quebec's third party, Coalition Avenir Québec, balking at the charter as the PQ now apparently envisions it, it's unlike to be anything more than a political trial balloon.
The federal Minister of Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, weighed in on the issue Wednesday night.
"Freedom of religion is a universal principle," Kenney tweeted. "A child is no less Canadian because he or she wears a kippa, turban, cross or hijab to school."