MONTREAL—Quebec’s Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and other religious minorities are on alert after reports that the Parti Québécois government intends to introduce legislation that would ban veils, kippas, turbans and other symbols from government offices, hospitals, schools and any other place that receives public funding.
The revival this fall of the province’s long-running debate on the reasonable accommodation of religious minorities has been promised for months. But the scope of the proposed law, which was hinted at in a Journal de Montréal article Tuesday, is setting off alarm bells.
The newspaper, citing sources, said the legislation would slap a ban on religious symbols like head coverings for publicly funded employees as well as those seeking government services like hospital treatment — going after individuals rather than sticking to government institutions, as fellow sovereigntist party Québec Solidaire noted in a statement denouncing the proposed law.
While there is some relief in the province that such a far-reaching law has little likelihood of being implemented in the current minority-government situation, where the provincial Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec have staked out more moderate ground, others are concerned about re-launching a debate that has been regularly flaring up since 2007.
The PQ campaigned last year on a promise to introduce what was originally dubbed the “Charter of Secularism.”
The Marois government has since rebranded the plan as a charter of “Quebec values” — with those values including gender equality and secularism.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has dismissed the idea in the past and shrugged it off Tuesday as a “trial balloon.”
He called it the PQ’s attempt to divert the public’s attention away from economic issues.
Mukhbir Singh, the World Sikh Organization of Canada’s vice-president for Quebec and Atlantic Canada, said any such legislation is unnecessary, a likely violation of peoples’ individual rights of religious worship, and a distraction from more pressing public concerns like the economy.
“There’s no problem that’s being solved by this,” he said in an interview.
Quebec’s Sikh’s were singled out earlier this year after the provincial soccer federation banned turban-wearing boys from playing the game over unexplained safety concerns. The move provoked national outrage and international snickering, but was supported by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois.
The Quebec Soccer Federation cancelled the turban ban only after an extraordinary intervention from FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, to say that turbans should be allowed on the field.
The battle provoked expressions of support for Quebec’s Sikhs, but also profound concerns within their community, he said.
“The worry is about where this is going to stop.”
The vital part of any bill to enshrine the province as officially secular is not to outlaw headscarves, turbans and kippas but to find the line beyond which those articles of religious clothing might affect the person’s ability to carry out their tasks, says Lionel Perez, the mayor of the Montreal borough of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
“I’m someone who has been wearing the kippa as an elected official for the last four years. I don’t know and it hasn’t been explained how that has hindered my ability to represent my constituents and my residents or act on behalf of the municipality,” he said.
Yet in a province that has been debating how best to ensure that its society remains secular since the issue first exploded onto front pages and television screens in 2007, the question is no longer whether to do something but how far the law should go, said Pierre Bosset, a law professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. This, he said, despite there being no solid evidence to show that demands for religious accommodation are on the rise.
“In 2007 we started talking about secularism. Today the word is so well known that it has become a little mainstream to say that Quebec needs a secular charter,” Bosset said.
No political party in Quebec’s national assembly can afford to dismiss the issue as irrelevant for fear of alienating potential voters, though provincial Liberal leader Philippe Couillard said earlier this month that he will oppose any law that has as its true objective the division of Quebec society and the stoking of sovereigntist partisans in the run-up to a provincial election.
Perez said he, too, would hate to see the Marois government playing politics with the religious identity of some Quebecers, even if he believes it would be a losing issue for the PQ.
“If the PQ wants to make this the prevalent issue that’s their prerogative,” he said. “If they really want to use it in an election campaign it may come back to bite them.”
With files from The Canadian Press