Quebec secular charter hearings begin

With public hearings now underway into Bill 60, the PQ minister responsible for the proposed secular charter called it a moderate document that offers made-in-Quebec secularism.

More than 250 expected to appear at hearings into Bill 60 in coming weeks

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec's proposed values charter in Montreal on Sept. 14. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

With public hearings now underway into Bill 60, the PQ minister responsible for the proposed secular charter, Bernard Drainville, called it a moderate document that offers made-in-Quebec secularism.

If passed, Bill 60 would bar all public sector employees from wearing overtly religious symbols.

More than 250 individuals, institutions and community organizations are expected to appear at the hearings, which are scheduled to run until Feb. 7.

Members of the public had until Dec. 20 to submit either a brief or a request to appear at the hearings.

Opinions across Quebec are deeply divided on the proposed legislation, which was tabled in November by the government. Far from unifying Quebecers around the principle of secularism, Bill 60 has largely divided them along linguistic lines.

According to a Léger Marketing poll released Monday by the Montreal Gazette newspaper and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, 48 per cent of the 1,000 Quebecers surveyed favour Bill 60.

The poll suggests that support for the secular charter is far more firmly rooted in francophone Quebec, with 57 per cent of French-speaking respondents in favour of it. Support for Bill 60 plummeted among those polled who belong to other language groups, with only 16 per cent expressing strong support for it.

Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Bill 60, says the public hearings won't radically alter the legislation. (CBC)

Outside the hearings on Tuesday, Drainville reiterated his view that the draft legislation is essential for Quebec, and the hearings are not likely to alter it in significant ways. 

"It's a bill for Quebecers that reflects what we are as a society," he said.

"It's a moderate, well-balanced bill and the kind of state secularism that we are proposing is going to be a state secularism that is unique to the Quebec society."

He believes the hearings will help convince Bill 60's critics that his government is listening to their concerns.

"Even if people are against the charter, if they have the impression they have been listened to and respected, they will be more inclined to respect it when it becomes law," he said.

Michelle Blanc will be one of the first to appear at the hearings. The popular blogger is part of a group of influential Quebec women calling themselves "the Janettes" who are promoting support for the secular charter. 

Blanc told CBC News that she supports Bill 60’s emphasis on a secular Quebec.

“If we state that we want a non-religious society, and that statement is shown in the public workers’ neutrality, to me that’s good, and to me that’s freedom,” she said.

Those opposed to the secular charter worry that it will have just the opposite effect and deprive Quebecers of their fundamental rights. In its brief to the hearings committee, Montreal’s largest English-language school board said Bill 60 will instead endorse “bullying.”

"If you are putting out a law where you're saying it's inappropriate to wear a religious symbol … and you're being treated differently and you're being taunted, you're being ridiculed, you're being bullied ... the government is not making our job very easy to combat that," school board spokesman Michael Cohen told CBC News.

Political observers say a spring election could bring the hearings to an abrupt conclusion. If that’s the case, there’s little doubt that Bill 60 would be a dominant issue on the campaign trail.

“It’s the last card that [the minority PQ government] has to maybe be able to have a majority,” said Alec Castonguay, political bureau chief for the news magazine l'Actualité.

with files from Canadian Press

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