POLITICS

Marois isolated from her Parti Quebecois predecessors on values charter plan

10/04/2013 01:32 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
MONTREAL - The Parti Quebecois' present leadership is becoming increasingly isolated on its values-charter project, with a succession of former premiers calling for changes.

First, there was a column by Jacques Parizeau. Then a newspaper interview by Lucien Bouchard on Friday. Suddenly even Bernard Landry, who had so vociferously defended the government in recent weeks, was calling for a compromise.

The charter would, in its present form, bar anyone wearing a hijab, turban, yarmulke or a larger-than-average crucifix from working in the public sector. All those former PQ premiers have called for the plan to be watered down.

So if Premier Pauline Marois was planning to launch an election campaign on the values charter, with her party cast in the role of defender-of-Quebecois-identity against the hostile forces of Canadian federalism, the message is being seriously gummed up by her old allies.

Marois wouldn't comment directly on her predecessors' advice.

She declined to say how much weight she might give their suggestions, as her government prepares to table the charter this fall and amid simultaneous rumours of a December election.

"We will weigh all this advice," the premier said.

"I think it's important to take the time to properly analyze all these points of view that have been expressed. What's certain is that we will go forward with legislation that allows us to properly define the rules of living together.

"I believe that will unite us, rather than divide us."

Parizeau and Bouchard have come out to say they support certain parts of the charter, but are against the controversial plan to ban all state employees from wearing overt religious symbols.

They said a ban should apply only to certain professions — such as judges, police officers and prison guards — who have "coercive" power. That puts them closer, in some ways, to the position of the Coalition and Quebec solidaire parties.

The ex-premiers also called for the crucifix to be removed from the main legislature chamber, which is at odds with Marois' position as well as the Coalition's.

Bouchard said it would be rather bizarre for the PQ to take a more ardent stand on keeping the cross there than the one taken by organization representing the province's bishops, which has said it's fine with the cross being removed from above the Speaker's chair.

He suggested that the government could "hit a home run" by reframing the plan as one that focuses specifically on secularism instead of the more generic notion of "values."

"Some will think that it's not enough, but no one will think it goes too far," Bouchard said of his proposal.

"There is a rare political window that is opening. I hope the government will seize the opportunity."

A third former PQ premier, Landry, threw his support behind Parizeau and Bouchard's proposal.

Landry had conducted numerous interviews in recent weeks to defend the PQ plan and rail against its critics — especially those in English Canada.

On Friday, Landry continued to call the charter a "courageous gesture" but he said he'd always had some reservations with its original presentation.

He said he hadn't voiced them publicly because the plan hadn't been tabled in a bill yet.

"I said it was courageous — and that it could possibly be improved. I continue to say that," Landry told Radio-Canada.

"I had my reservations and I would have voiced them when the details were out, and they will be."

Landry said one of his concerns was with the name. He also suggested rebranding it as a secularism charter, which was the PQ's original stated name when it first announced the project in the last election.

Critics of the PQ have noted the inconsistency in its approach to secularism. It would bar religious clothing for state employees — while allowing a big crucifix in the chamber where laws are made.

There is one common theme between those two positions: polls have suggested both ideas are relatively popular.

However, more detailed polls have suggested that support for the PQ plan has its limits. One placed the religion debate low on voters' priority list; another suggested a strong majority of Quebecers would rather not fire someone over religious headwear.

In Ottawa, International Development Minister Christian Paradis called the PQ's charter divisive Monday and said it sent a hostile message to immigrants.

He said Quebec needs immigrants and the proposed charter casts doubt on their place in Quebec society. He welcomed the intervention of Bouchard and Parizeau in the debate, stressing that he was speaking as an individual and a Quebecer.

The federal government has raised the possibility of mounting a legal challenge if the charter is passed in its current form.

Former Canadian prime ministers have weighed in.

This week, Jean Chretien told reporters that any Quebec project must conform to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adding that he was in favour of equality "in all forms" when he was in government.

His predecessor, Brian Mulroney, went farther.

A teaser for an interview Mulroney has done for Conrad Black's new show, on Vision TV, asks the former prime minister for his thoughts on the PQ plan.

"I think it was a needless controversy. No one needed this," Mulroney said, adding that the necessary protections are already present in the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights.

"If you want to build a dynamic, inclusive society, you have all the instruments at hand," Mulroney said. "This limits that and sends what I consider to be a negative, inappropriate signal to immigrants — and to the vast immigrant communities that bring prosperity to Canada."

Bouchard said compromise is the best scenario.

"It is possible, I would even say probable, that the national assembly would vote unanimously to compromise. It would be a triumph. Instead of dividing Quebecers, it would unite them," he said.

"I think everyone would be relieved and even proud."