"I think the risk of things getting out of control was far too high for this particular event and I decided to make the reasonable and responsible decision not to attend," Bernard Drainville said in Quebec City.
The Parti Quebecois government's proposed secularism charter would ban anyone working in the public service from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab while on the job.
Bill 60 would also force employees of a public organization to have their face uncovered while offering services, as would people receiving the services.
Drainville contends the charter would guarantee the equality of men and women as well as the religious neutrality of the state.
But the group that held a protest outside Concordia on Thursday calls it ''xenophobic.''
"Certainly our organization never had any plans of like shutting down the event," Christina Xydous, a spokeswoman for the Quebec Public Interest Research Group Concordia, said in a phone interview.
"The only thing we called for was a gathering outside of the space where the talk would be happening — and that's all."
She maintained that Drainville didn't show up because the PQ had a "very reasonable fear" it would face some really tough questions from the crowd.
In the end, only a handful of protesters turned up outside the building where a Liberal member of the legislature and the former president of the leftist Quebec solidaire took part in the debate as scheduled.
Concordia spokeswoman Chris Mota said Drainville's office contacted the university and asked if it could ensure there would be no disruptions.
Mota said Concordia could offer no such guarantee.
"As is the case for all events on campus, the university cannot — with any certainty — assure the minister's office that the event would go ahead without any disruption," she said in an interview.
"We conveyed that to the minister and the minister's office decided to withdraw from the event based on that."
Drainville's decision came the same day that the largest English school board in the province declared it will not implement any elements of Bill 60 if it becomes law.
Thursday's statement by the English Montreal School Board came after it approved a resolution declaring it will not accept provisions of the bill relating to the wearing of headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments.
On its website, the EMSB says its network consists of 85 schools and centres, with a population of more than 39,000 students in its youth and adult sectors.
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