08/26/2013 11:29 EDT | Updated 10/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec Religious Symbols Plan Takes Big Step Forward

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The Parti Quebecois' controversial minorities plan took a big step toward becoming a reality as the party holding the likely swing vote backed major parts of it Monday.

Coalition Leader Francois Legault said judges, police officers and elementary- and secondary-school teachers should be restricted from wearing religious symbols like veils, hijabs and turbans.

Legault's vote is key because the Parti Quebecois has only a parliamentary minority and needs support from one of the two main opposition parties to pass its Charter of Quebec Values.

Premier Pauline Marois expressed pleasure at the news.

"I'm happy Mr. Legault is ready to discuss and debate this," the PQ premier said Monday. She was asked about the subject during a news conference where she offered details about a $60 million reconstruction fund for the devastated town of Lac-Megantic.

"I hope we have a serene, harmonious debate so that we can collectively draw some conclusions that allow us to live better together. That's what we want."

The Coalition's position doesn't go quite as far as the PQ's.

Medical professionals and daycare workers would be exempt under the CAQ proposal. So would public-sector workers who don't hold a position of authority.

"What we say also is that we should exclude religious signs for employees being in authority, like judges, policemen — and teachers because we think that teachers, they have in front of them children in a vulnerable position. But, that's it," Legault said in Quebec City.

"We don't think, like the Parti Quebecois, that we should extend this exclusion to doctors, nurses, all civil servants. We think that they should have the right to continue to wear a religious sign because they are not in an authority position.

"So we think it's a balanced position, it's a responsible position and we hope that the Parti Quebecois turns the page as soon as possible because we know that this debate will divide Quebec."

Legault said that, if a court strikes down the plan, he would not hesitate to use the Constitution's rarely-employed notwithstanding clause to enforce it.

The early consensus in Quebec is that the issue could be a political winner for the PQ.

A poll released Monday said 65 per cent of Quebec's francophones, and 57 per cent of the overall population, agree with the idea.

Just 25 per cent of anglophone respondents said they agree. The Leger Marketing poll of 1,000 respondents was conducted over the weekend and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Whether the plan actually does win votes could be another story.

A poll published during last year's election placed the minority accommodation issue as No. 15 on Quebec voters' list of priorities — far behind economic and social issues.

The main opposition party, the Liberals, has frequently derided the government's focus on identity as a distraction from issues that matter to people.

When asked about Quebecers who oppose the proposed measures, Marois said she hopes to eventually unite everyone in support of the charter.

She also said she expects anglophones to get an opportunity to express their views on the eventual legislation, which Marois noted is still a work in progress.

"I'm sure we will be able to arrive at a consensus," Marois told the news conference, during which her government announced plans to build a new commercial area and a bridge in Lac-Megantic's downtown.

"I think we will not divide the population... (to the) contrary, we will unite the population of Quebec under this charter."

The potential social impact of the charter, meanwhile, is difficult to gauge.

Several medical professionals and daycare workers were featured in news reports last week saying that they would leave Quebec, quit their job, or refuse to comply if ordered to change their clothing.

The province already suffers long wait times for hospital care and daycare spots. Under Legault's proposal, the plan would not apply to medical and daycare workers.

The PQ campaigned last year on a plan to restrict religious clothing and included it in its inaugural speech in the legislature.

Details of its plan were leaked last week to the Journal de Montreal, a tabloid newspaper that has promoted the issue since the mid-2000s.

The leaked plan says the government would restrict the right of state employees to wear religious clothing like turbans, hijabs and visible crucifixes.

The reaction from federal politicians has been uneven.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney condemned the plan.

But the minister responsible for the Office of Religious Freedom, John Baird, declined to comment Monday because he said his office's mandate lies outside Canada.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, whose party has nearly five-dozen seats in Quebec, originally resisted commenting last week on what he downplayed as a "trial balloon."

Mulcair weighed in more forcefully Monday, saying he would "strongly" oppose the plan if the leaked details turn out to be true.

He said he won't accept the scapegoating of minorities, particularly of Muslim women who he said seem to be the biggest "targets."

In Quebec City, Legault said there's a need to act on the issue.

"I think we have no choice. We've seen in the last five years examples of accommodation that should not have been given. Why is that? Because the (provincial) Liberal party didn't have the courage of putting some guidelines and that's what we need to do it as fast as possible."

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