Saguenay mayor attacks PQ candidate's foreign background

Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay said he is "outraged" at the PQ's desires to mainstream secularism and for also letting a PQ candidate "who doesn't understand our culture at all" guide the non-religious movement.

Jean Tremblay says Djemila Benhabib should not dictate Quebec's religious stance

Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay says the crucifix in the National Assembly must stay. (CBC)

Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay said he is "outraged" at the Parti Québecois' desires to make secularism mainstream in the province and accused the party of letting a PQ candidate "who doesn't understand our culture at all" guide the non-religious movement.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois's statement about the introduction of a secular charter, coupled with Trois-Rivières PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib's past assertion the crucifix at the National Assembly should go, has upset some people in the province.

Djemila Benhabib says she supports the PQ's stance on secularism. (Radio-Canada)

Marois is spending the day focusing on transport-related promises in Saint-Jérôme, north of Montreal, but the suggestions she made Tuesday are what's on many people's minds.

On Tuesday night, Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay said he is angered at the PQ's desires to force secularism into everyday life and channelled most of his criticism at Benhabib.

Tremblay is a devout Catholic who fought a legal battle to continue reciting a Christian prayer at the beginning of every city council meeting. The mayor lost his Human Rights case in 2011 but will appear before the Court of Appeal next year.

While campaigning in Maskinongé, northeast of Montreal on Tuesday, Marois said she wants to implement a secular charter and ban all civil servants from wearing or exposing overt religious symbols.

According to Marois, the crucifix at Quebec's National Assembly, however, would remain untouched. Benhabib had previously stated the emblem would have to go but she now supports her party’s position that the crucifix is part of Quebec’s cultural heritage.

Benhabib, an anti-Islamic author and staunch supporter of secularism, was with Marois on Tuesday during the proclamation about a secular society.

'Someone whose name I can't even pronounce'

Tremblay is especially angered over Benhabib's old remarks concerning the crucifix at the National Assembly.

"It's not the [secular] charter in and out of itself [that peeves him off]. It's having someone whose name I can't even pronounce come from Algeria, who doesn't understand our culture at all, but she's going to make the rules. And I know how soft Quebecers are — they'll all give in to her," said Tremblay.

The mayor also added that perhaps, Quebec should reconsider taking down its flag as the white cross in the middle is inherently a sign of Christianity.

"Jean Chrétien, he should change his name, too. And then René Lévesque, his name comes from l'évêque [French for bishop]," added Tremblay.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, Benhabib said she has been a Quebec resident for 15 years and held back comments about the Saguenay mayor.

"I do not wish for this campaign to be carried and crystallize on my person," said Benhabib.

She added she would not be distracted by anyone during this campaign.

Benhabib added that she strongly believed in the PQ's move towards a new charter.

"The past is the past [...] and today is the present," she said.

This isn't the first time the PQ has mentioned the enactment of a secular charter aimed at making sure public and semi-public institutions are free of religious bias and symbols.

Under such a charter, civil servants would not be allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols.

Marois demands apology from Tremblay

During her campaign stop in Saint-Jérôme on Wednesday, Pauline Marois demanded an apology for the "unacceptable" and "irresponsible" comments made by the mayor. She added that Benhabib's integration into Quebec culture was "exemplary."

Tremblay supported Quebec's Liberal Party during its campaign in 2008 but did not comment publicly on his position this year.

He did, however, say that he would not apologize for the comments made about Benhabib.

"Every time we don't say the same thing as Madame Marois she says you have to apologize," said Tremblay. "They say that. I don't know why. They always say when [you don't] agree with what she said, they say you have to apologize. Oh, that means nothing."

Charest reacts to the proposed charter

Liberal Leader Jean Charest also decided to comment on Benhabib's notion of nixing the crucifix at the National Assembly and said the cross is reflective of Quebec's society.

"For us, it's also a very important symbol of our history. History's not going to be rewritten in Quebec," said Charest during a stop in Sherbrooke, the riding in which he is an electoral candidate.

"We can't pretend that in Quebec, we didn't live in a society where the church played an extremely important role, because that's our history," he added. "It's part of who we are in Quebec and if Ms. Marois wants to have that debate internally, where does it end?"

The Charest government had tabled a law in March 2010, demanding that any people who wear face coverings in Quebec will have to remove them to work in the public sector or to do business with government officials.

At the time, Charest told a news conference that the bill was a solution needed to balance individual freedoms with the values of Quebec society.

The law was met with protests in Quebec from the Muslim community and deemed discriminatory by Quebec's Human Rights Commission.

The bill was carried through to the adoption committee in September 2011 but was never implemented.