Quebec secular charter 'abolishes rights,' opposition says

After months of controversy, the Quebec government tabled its secular charter this morning at the national assembly, legislation that would make religious neutrality the law for public employees.

Federal Tories vow to challenge law if passed

One-on-One with Bernard Drainville

9 years ago
Duration 9:02
The minister of the secular charter sits with Andrew Chang in the CBC Montreal studios.

After months of controversy, the Quebec government has tabled its secular charter and provoked another wave of debate from local, provincial and federal politicians. 

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

Once the bill was tabled, debate quickly grew heated in the national assembly, started by a back-and-forth between Premier Pauline Marois and Liberal Opposition leader Jean-Marc Fournier.

Fournier accused the Parti Québécois government of creating division in Quebec's society for no reason.

The neutrality of the state is not in peril.— Jean-Marc Fournier, Opposition leader 

"The Liberal Party of Quebec would never think of removing rights in order to protect other rights," Fournier said. 

"The government wants to abolish rights and liberties without any factual proof ... the neutrality of the state is not in peril."

Marois shot back, saying the bill was founded on the values of democracy — equality between men and women, and neutrality of the state. 

"These are the basic foundations of our society," Marois said. 

“I don’t know if the leader of the Opposition and I live on the same planet.”

Drainville says transition won't extend indefinitely

Minister Bernard Drainville tabled Bill 60, recently renamed as the "charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests." 

Once the bill is passed, it would allow all civil service organizations one full year to adapt to the changes. 

Certain institutions such as universities, health-care centres and municipalities, will be able to apply to extend their transition periods by another five years.

In some cases, institutions such as Montreal's Jewish general hospital could apply for an even longer extension.

But Drainville said that period will not be indefinite. 

"The general principle underlying this clause is that we recognize that certain institutions founded for religious reasons may have to take longer," he said. 

The PQ government said it also wants to amend the charter of rights and freedoms in order to set out guidelines of what is considered reasonable accommodation.

Government willing to call confidence vote

Moments before the bill was set to be tabled, the PQ government revealed it would be following a highly unusual protocol.

Premier Pauline Marois and Minister Bernard Drainville introduced Quebec's secular charter in Sept. (CBC)

If any of the opposition parties were to have objected to the tabling of the bill, the government said it would have called for a vote and those votes would be considered as a confidence vote in the government. That means if the two opposition parties had voted against tabling the bill, the minority Quebec government would have fallen. 

In the end, the bill was tabled quickly and without a confidence vote. 

National assembly crucifix will remain, for now

Over the past few months, the PQ government has faced criticism for the crucifix that hangs hangs above the Speaker's chair in the national assembly.

The government has maintained that the crucifix is a part of Quebec's heritage and culture, and should remain in the building. 

But after Bill 60 was unveiled today, Drainville said the crucifix's future will not be decided by the government and they will wait for a consensus from the legislature.

Drainville also said members of the national assembly will be exempt from the ban on wearing overtly religious symbols.

Secular charter renamed

Previously referred to as the charter of Quebec values, the PQ government has renamed the bill the "charter affirming the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests."

A diagram from the charter website illustrates what would be banned overt religious symbols for public employees. (Government of Quebec)

Opposition politicians went on the attack after reading Bill 60.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard called the bill discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“It's kind of saying that part of our values in Quebec is discrimination based on hiring because of the way you dress,” he said.

Couillard said the bill is based on fear, not openness.

“What this bill is telling the world — and that's highly unfortunate — it's telling the world, look how we are weak.  How weak we are.  We feel that we cannot defend ourselves.  We are besieged. We are under threat."

Quebec's secular charter also had federal politicians in Ottawa weighing in.

Canada’s Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney said he’s very concerned, and the Canadian government will keep a close eye on what happens with Bill 60.

“Freedom of religion is a universal principle, and it is one that we protect and defend here in Canada,” Kenney said, adding that if the secular charter passes at the national assembly, Ottawa will challenge it.

“Here in Canada, a Canadian is no less a citizen because through their religious observings they may wear a hijab or a turban, a kippa or a cross. They are all equally Canada, and have the equal right to participate fully in Canadian society.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said he considers Bill 60 divisive.

“I am a Quebecer, and I know Quebec values are values of inclusion and openness. [Pauline Marois] knows this is never going to pass,” Mulcair said.

“This is a political play. Quebecers are open and inclusive, and this doesn’t respect who Quebecers are and it doesn’t reflect who they are.”

Montreal’s mayor-elect Denis Coderre — who took a stance against the charter during his election campaign — said he hasn’t changed his mind now that he’s read the tabled bill.

We define Montreal by its diversity — it’s not a one-size-fits-all.— Denis Coderre, Montreal's mayor-elect

“My point of view has not changed,” Coderre said, adding that he’ll meet with Montreal’s new councillors and introduce a resolution in city hall condemning the charter.

“We define Montreal by its diversity — it’s not a one-size-fits-all. My role is to make sure that we keep that.”

Coderre — a former Liberal MP and federal minister of immigration — said he plans to go to Quebec City to meet with Marois, saying he’s concerned about how such a law would affect the economy.

“It affects individual rights. You cannot have a hierarchy of rights,” Coderre said.

“We need a serene but firm debate on the impact of such a law, if it’s applied as is. There is no consensus right now.”


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