MONTREAL - Two federal party leaders weighed in on Quebec's controversial religion plan Wednesday despite an admonition by the Bloc Quebecois that they had no business in the debate.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, both of them Quebec MPs, returned to their criticism after the Bloc warned them to steer clear.
Mulcair said he won't be silenced on the issue, after Bloc Leader Daniel Paille said federal politicians should butt out and leave the matter to Quebecers.
"I'm an elected official in Quebec," Mulcair said in Montreal. "I am leader of the Official Opposition in the Canadian Parliament but at the same time Mr. Paille has to understand that all Quebecers are involved in this debate."
On Tuesday, Paille accused Mulcair and Trudeau of denying the Quebec nation under the guise of federal multiculturalism policy.
"I am formally demanding that the Quebec people be left to decide themselves," Paille said in a statement.
"The federal party leaders who say they recognize the Quebecois nation — if they're sincere — should put their words into action and let Quebecers have their own debate. Ottawa must recognize that Quebec is perfectly within its right to define, without being impeded, its common values."
That didn't wash with Mulcair, who said Wednesday he's got a long history of examining the lack of minorities in Quebec's public service going back to his job at the Conseil de la langue francaise in the 1980s as well as when he was with the Alliance Quebec lobby group.
"What's being talked about now by (Premier Pauline) Marois is putting up actual structural barriers that would increase the under-representation of minorities in the Quebec civil service," said Mulcair, who added he and his party stood "foursquare" in favour of minority rights.
"It's a fundamental question of principle and I won't be shouted down and told I won't be allowed to talk by someone like Daniel Paille."
Trudeau also discussed the Quebec values charter and minority rights at the Liberal caucus meeting in Georgetown, PEI.
He has already called it unworthy of Quebec and made his viewpoint clear to Marois during a Quebec City meeting last week.
Quebec's minister in charge of the plan said he's happy with the debate surrounding his proposed Charter of Quebec Values.
The plan, which has yet to be formally tabled in the legislature, would reportedly restrict the right of public employees to wear religious items like turbans, yarmulkes, hijabs and visible crosses.
Bernard Drainville, the Quebec minister spearheading the project, said all the chatter shows people are reflecting on the issue.
"I sense an openness of spirit, I have the sense of extreme goodwill and I think that augurs very well for the discussions that will follow," Drainville told reporters at the beginning of the Parti Quebecois caucus retreat in Carleton-sur-Mer.
Polls suggest the plan has majority support.
But the opposition to it is making itself heard.
Montreal city council voted unanimously Tuesday night not to endorse the proposed charter. The council said a more balanced approach is needed that would reflect Montreal's multicultural character.
Drainville wasn't disturbed by that reaction and called it "a good thing" that showed people are giving the issue some thought.
He also didn't have a problem with a proposal for a watered-down charter by the Coalition party, which would prefer to exempt daycare workers and medical professionals.
Drainville did reject contentions that the attention on secularism had pushed aside other issues, such as the economy — something that was echoed by Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau.
"We are able to do two things at the same time," he said.
In Quebec City, that was the argument of the Liberals.
MNA Pierre Paradis insisted the PQ was concentrating on identity politics to divert attention away from its mismanagement of the economy.
(With files by Lia Levesque in Montreal and Alexandre Robillard in Carleton-sur-Mer)
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