Montreal

Back to arguing over religious headwear at National Assembly

A motion honouring the victims of last week's shooting at a Quebec City mosque was tabled this afternoon at the National Assembly, and passed unanimously. But the show of unity was fleeting, as Quebec's political parties quickly resumed their horse-trading over what religious symbols can be worn in public.

With flags still at half-mast following mosque shooting, parties horse-trade over religious neutrality bill

Members of the National Assembly, including Premier Philippe Couillard, observe a minute of silence on Tuesday in honour of the victims of the mosque shooting. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

A motion honouring the victims of last week's shooting at a Quebec City mosque was adopted unanimously this afternoon at the National Assembly.

But the show of unity was fleeting, as Quebec's political parties quickly resumed their negotiations over what religious symbols can be worn in public.

It was the first sitting of the legislature following a two-month Christmas break, and the first since six Muslims were killed in the Jan. 29 mosque attack. 

Since the shooting, many politicians in Quebec have expressed solidarity with the province's Muslim community and promised to strike a more inclusive tone when they discuss contentious identity issues.

But with the Liberal government's religious neutrality bill, Bill 62, currently before committee, opposition parties sought to wrangle concessions that would impose restrictions on what Muslim women can wear in public.

Horse-trading after tragedy

In its current state, the bill will force Quebecers to give and receive public services with their faces uncovered. But the bill also provides for certain religious exemptions, including for those who wear the niqab or burka. 

On Tuesday, the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec indicated they would be willing to drop their demand that primary and secondary teachers also be banned from wearing religious head-coverings.

But, in return, they want the government's bill to include provisions preventing visible religious symbols being worn by judges, Crown lawyers, police, prison guards and the president of the National Assembly — a proposal contained in the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodation. 

Couillard, left, accused CAQ Leader François Legault of stirring up debate over hypothetical issues. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

CAQ Leader François Legault said his party was willing to make the trade in order to bring closure to the identity debate that has persisted in Quebec since the Bouchard-Taylor report was tabled in 2008.

"It's important," Legault said to reporters. "It's been dragging on for 10 years. I think it spoils the climate." 

For its part, the opposition Parti Québécois laid out three conditions for supporting the bill, including removing the possibility of religious exemptions.  

The PQ also wants a detailed guide for how public bodies should deal with demands for religious accommodations and they echoed the CAQ's demand that the Bouchard-Taylor recommendation be included in Bill 62. 

While Premier Philippe Couillard welcomed the opposition's openness to making concessions, he also accused them of stirring up debate over hypothetical problems. 

"As far as I know, there are no police officers who wear religious symbols here in our Quebec," Couillard told reporters. 

"There are still none today. We are about to start another debate about a situation that is more than hypothetical — it currently doesn't exist."

'Caustic debate'

The attack at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, a suburban Quebec City mosque, has prompted questions about the role played by political debates in the province in radicalizing the suspected shooter.

The suspect in the shooting, Alexandre Bissonnette, appears to have expressed support for far right political leaders and held anti-immigrant views.  

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Couillard stressed to his fellow politicians that "words matter." PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée even said he regretted making comments last year about the security threat posed by women wearing burkas.

Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-François Lisée wants exemptions removed from the government's religious neutrality bill. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Speaking before a Senate hearing earlier this week, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said he too was concerned about the effect poisonous political debate was having on potential extremists. 

"There is, I think everyone would agree, a more caustic tone to the political discourse that seems to attract and agitate and radicalize people of all persuasions, particularly those who know hardly anything about it, to engage — and that represents a concern for us," Paulson told the senators on the committee.

On Tuesday, Quebec's premier questioned whether adding further regulations on what religious symbols can be worn in public would help address the province's issues with racism and Islamophobia. 

"It's not by restricting...some people's rights in society that we'll fix the problem," Couillard said. 

Status of severely injured men    

As of Tuesday, two men who were shot in the Jan. 29 attackwere still in critical condition at l'Hôpital de l'Enfant-Jésus in Quebec City.

The hospital said all the other patients had been sent home.

One of the two men still in hospital, Saïd El-Amari, was injured in the stomach during the attack.

The hospital says he is in critical condition, although there are times when he looks around before falling back asleep.

The second critically injured man, Aymen Derbali, was shot five times, including in the neck.

He remains in an induced coma.

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