08/22/2013 11:00 EDT | Updated 10/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec Religious Headwear Legislation Is Happening, PQ Confirms

Indian Sikh school students participate in a protest against the ban on wearing turban in public schools in France, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 on the occasion of a two-day visit of French President Francois Hollande in India. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

MONTREAL - This Parti Quebecois leader was a Harvard-educated urbanite who praised minority accommodation, arguing that the province was an open society built by immigrants, with some of the most progressive human-rights standards in the world.

He was crushed in an election.

To understand the current Parti Quebecois fixation with religious minorities and the clothes they wear, it's worth rewinding six years to explore the wreckage of Andre Boisclair's third-place implosion in the March 2007 campaign.

The PQ was leapfrogged by the Action Democratique du Quebec, a perennial also-ran that was propelled ahead during an intense public debate over the accommodation of minorities.

Then-ADQ Leader Mario Dumont had suggested Quebec had gone too far in catering to newcomers and, unlike today's PQ, the leader at the time pushed back against the notion.

The result was disastrous enough for the PQ that there were even whispers the party of Rene Levesque might disappear.

Within months, with the party rank-and-file clamouring for change and new leader Pauline Marois promising to provide it, the PQ began its shift in a new direction.

The PQ presented a controversial citizenship bill in the legislature that would have kept some immigrants from holding public office in Quebec.

It was part of a PQ goal to recapture votes it had lost to Dumont in the province's mainly rural, francophone heartland.

This week, the now-governing PQ launched the province's latest debate on minority accommodation after a newspaper reported that public employees in schools, hospitals and other government offices will be barred from wearing religious clothing in the workplace.

Past polls have suggested such a plan would be popular in Quebec, but the newly leaked details have drawn a furious reaction from some pundits, members of affected minority groups, and a small number of federal politicians.

The details of the PQ's so-called "Charter of Quebec Values" were not entirely surprising — the Marois government had previously promised to put forward such a plan in its last election platform and in its subsequent inaugural speech in the legislature.

It was a different story in 2007.

In an interview with the French-language CBC, Boisclair affirmed his support for Quebec's model of immigration and integration.

He denounced the "incredible downward slide" of the debate on reasonable accommodation that was spreading through the province ahead of the soon-to-be-called election.

"We are being led to believe that Quebecers are racist, violent, intolerant — this is not the Quebec that I know," Boisclair told Radio-Canada.

Boisclair, whom Marois appointed last year as Quebec's delegate-general to New York, called the provincial charter of rights one of the most progressive in the world and said Quebec was built by immigrants.

The Radio-Canada report said the PQ leader sounded like then-Liberal-premier Jean Charest.

That was two election defeats ago.

By the time it finally won a campaign, last year, the PQ was being described as xenophobic by some of its more ardent critics with its litany of public attacks on supposedly excessive minority accommodation in the name of "secularism."

In its final years in opposition, there was the proposal to restrict non-French speakers' ability to run for public office. There was the public broadside against Islam-approved halal meat.

And there was the headwear plan — which has survived the transition to government.

The PQ confirmed Thursday that it intends to move forward with its minority-accommodation policy, after it had remained silent the first two days following a newspaper report with leaked details of the plan.

The government is reportedly determined to make good on its old promise to ban religious symbols such as kippas, hijabs and turbans and ostentatious crosses for public-sector workers.

Outside a cabinet meeting Thursday in Quebec City, members were asked by reporters to comment on the purported legislation.

Marois would not confirm the specific details of the plan, but in the same breath she told reporters that it was on the way.

"Let's wait for the legislation to be tabled before commenting," she said, as she walked into the cabinet meeting.

Some of her ministers were slightly more voluble.

Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the file, and Jean-Francois Lisee said the plan will respond to popular demand.

"These proposals are very balanced," said Drainville, the minister responsible for democratic institutions.

"It's a good balance between respect for individual rights and the respect of Quebecers' common values."

He said the government will put forward a discussion paper, seek to build a consensus, then table a bill and negotiate with other political parties in the national assembly.

Marois campaigned last year on an emotionally charged promise to introduce a "Charter of Secularism," notably aimed at restricting Muslim headwear in public institutions. The campaign saw identity frequently used as a wedge issue.

A few months ago, her government started referring to the plan as the "Charter of Quebec Values."

It's unclear such a plan could be adopted in the current minority legislature, or whether it would remain an unresolved issue in the next election campaign.

The PQ would need support from at least one major opposition party and the key swing votes in the debate could belong to the Coalition Avenir Quebec.

The CAQ has said it will seek a middle-ground approach between the PQ and the more laissez-faire attitude of the Liberals.

Critics of the Liberals, the former governing party, accuse them of failing to respond to a popular demand for clear guidelines on religious accommodation within state institutions.

The new Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard, has said guidelines for administrators could be a good idea but has otherwise been extremely critical of the PQ idea.

Couillard made a reference to the plan again Thursday as he announced his intention to seek a seat in the next election in his home riding of Roberval.

He ascribed the desire to run in a sparsely populated area, and not in a Montreal byelection, to wanting his party to succeed everywhere in Quebec and not feed into any "us-against-them" stereotypes.

The plan has also angered several medical professionals and day-care workers, who say they will never allow the government to dictate what they wear and some have said they would rather leave Quebec.

Few federal politicians have weighed in.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has blasted the plan and raised his concerns about it this week in a meeting with Marois.

The Prime Minister's Office has called it a matter for provincial politicians to decide, but multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney has since weighed and condemned the idea.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said he won't comment yet until he sees an official plan — adding that he won't comment on a "trial balloon."

The PQ, for its part, has frequently turned to Ottawa during the ongoing debate.

In most cases, the independence-seeking party has used the federal government as its political foil. This week, though, it's asking for a friendly favour.

The Marois government wants Ottawa to block fundamentalist preachers from Europe from speaking next month at a conference for young Muslims.

In a letter that contained two spelling mistakes in the name of Conservative cabinet minister Kellie Leitch, the provincial government requested that the preachers be barred from entering Canada.

The PQ decries the sexism of some conference participants who have reportedly said that not wearing the veil is worse than cancer, and who preach the segregation of genders.

It wants the speakers refused entry because their preachings violate Quebec's gender-equality principles.

The PQ has repeatedly clashed with Ottawa on religious-rights issues in recent years. It's unclear, though, that the issue is a high priority for voters.

While it's true that several polls have shown strong majority support for a PQ-style approach, one survey also placed the issue at No. 15 among things that Quebecers cared about in the last election.

That put it far behind issues like health care, education and the economy. With some medical professionals and day-care workers this week threatening to quit or leave Quebec if the policy passes, it's not inconceivable that the plan could ricochet on its authors.

Not even Pequistes all draw the same lessons about why their party was sideswiped in 2007.

Shortly after that disastrous result, one defeated PQ candidate cited a completely different form of discrimination as a potential reason that rural voters spurned Boisclair.

"We have to ask ourselves whether Quebecers, generally, are ready to live with homosexuality," said Rachel Gagnon.

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