The political steamroller that is Quebec's charter of values

You can tell it's coming on election season in Quebec because almost every day there has been a new drama created by the Parti Quebecois' proposed charter of values, Michelle Gagnon writes.

As a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, it seems to be working for the PQ

(Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

You can tell it's coming on election season in Quebec because almost every day there has been a new drama created by the Parti Quebecois' proposed charter of values.

Last week, as formal public hearings began into the secularization project, it was the Pineault-Caron family, from the Saguenay town of Sacré-Coeur, who stole the show.

Their testimony about the upsetting sights and sounds of Islam they suffered during their travels in Morocco and Turkey — and their conclusion that it is "unthinkable" to allow people in such "disguises" to roam around in public in Quebec — became something of a YouTube sensation, registering close to 300,000 hits.

This week, Quebec's Liberal party was the political casualty. Five months late to the debate, it was preparing to unveil its official position on the charter — OK to leave the crucifix in the legislature, but no face-covering garments like niqabs in the public service — when veteran Liberal Fatima Houda-Pépin left to sit as an independent.

The only Muslim in the National Assembly, Houda-Pépin claimed irreconcilable differences with Philippe Couillard's caucus over its stand. (She supports imposing a secular dress code only on those in positions of legal authority, like judges and police officers.)

But regardless of their differences, it is a loss the Liberals can ill afford. The once-governing party was already widely criticized for being AWOL on the issue, if not in general.

Long-serving Quebec Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim in the Quebec National Assembly, left the party earlier this week to sit as an independent. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

More importantly, it was proof that the divide-and-conquer politics of the charter are working wonders for Pauline Marois's PQ.

A Léger poll on Monday found that that 60 per cent of Quebecers back the secular charter, and support for it among the crucial French-speaking voters has risen to 69 per cent.

The poll also ranks the PQ's overall support at 36 per cent, a figure that sees them edging towards majority government territory.

Election ploy

For many Quebecers, the secular charter has long been seen as little more than an electoral ploy for the PQ, a bet that raising divisive identity politics will recoup the francophone vote lost to the upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec in the last election.

The Leger poll says support for the CAQ is down 10 points from the 2012 election. So to believe these numbers, the strategy is a winner.

But one poll doesn't complete the political calculus. The PQ has a few hurdles in its path to a clear majority, its upcoming budget being the biggest among them.

In an economic update in November, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau reported that government overspending and lower-than-expected revenues have left the PQ unable to balance its budget as promised.

Instead, it will run a $2.5 billion deficit, a billion up from last year, and put off the zero-deficit plan for another two years.

Both the Liberals and the CAQ have vowed to vote against the budget, which would of course bring down Marois's minority government and trigger an election.

Whether these parties' falling fortunes will lead them to a different conclusion come budget day remains to be seen.

But the controversy over the province's weakened finances — and the fuss the business community is likely to kick up over a variety of government initiatives — could well make a dent in the PQ momentum.

The charter itself also stands to take a few hits, likely more damaging ones than the easy-to-pick-on Pineault-Carons.

'Essential and incontrovertible'

The minister responsible for the charter, Bernard Drainville, opened the parliamentary commission on Bill 60 by saying that the ban on conspicuous religious symbols in public service — the bill's most controversial clause — is "essential and incontrovertible."

In so stating, he essentially told the 200-some individuals and institutions who have filed briefs with the commission that they would be listened to, but not heard.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, edging close to majority territory? (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

Since then, many of the heavyweights due to testify have made their briefs public in advance, and the weight of considered opinion against the PQ plan is also increasing.

For example, the Federation of Quebec School Boards, which backs much of the bill but employs a significant number of people who would be subjected to the ban, says the policy will undoubtedly result in numerous and extremely costly workplace conflicts.

It concludes the ban should be removed from the bill.

The association representing Quebec health-care establishments goes further, saying that 99 per cent of its members have never been confronted with a problem accommodating minority rights, and that the ban is "inapplicable."

Moreover, they strongly suggest the government seek out a legal opinion from the Quebec Court of Appeal before enacting this new law.

Of course, the legality of the bill has always been at issue. The PQ has legal opinions that say the law is sound, but they are largely based on the say-so of two people.

Meanwhile, the Quebec Bar association differs, and does so rather aggressively.

Its brief elevates the issue from a costly workplace headache to one of fundamental rights and freedoms. It states unconditionally that Bill 60 contravenes the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as international law.

But then, for those who see the charter as an elaborate and cynical electoral ploy, a court challenge — especially one that might be initiated by the federal government — could well be the strategy's endgame.

The fight that Quebecers are currently having with each other would then land on the national stage, and play out through the hardball politics of a fight for independence.

Meanwhile, with Quebec's other soap opera, the construction industry inquiry, now looking into a possible influence-seeking arrangement between Quebec's largest union and the PQ, Marois might want to bear in mind that reversals of fortune make for the best-watched dramas, and that the rest of the charter affair is still to unfold.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.