08/29/2013 11:14 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec Values Charter: Harper Treads Carefully, Trudeau Slammed For Segregation Comparison

TORONTO - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has treaded carefully into the emotional debate over Quebec's values charter with a promise Thursday to protect minority rights.

The prime minister said he wanted to comment cautiously for now because the Parti Quebecois government has not even made its plan public yet.

He also expressed reluctance to get sucked into a fight on the PQ's chosen battlefield.

"We know that the separatist government in Quebec would love to pick fights with Ottawa," Harper told a Toronto news conference.

"But that's not our business. Our business is the economy. Our business is job-creation for Canadians — all Canadians, including Quebecers."

In the next breath, though, he added that the federal government also has a responsibility to minorities and he intends to live up to it.

"And our job is social inclusion. Our job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel at home in this country and be Canadians," he said.

"That's our job."

A leaked copy of the plan suggests the PQ wants to restrict public employees from wearing religious symbols like turbans, kippas, hijabs and visible crosses.

Harper said he'll watch the plan closely when it's finally tabled to ensure rights are protected.

"You know — there are all kinds of competing rights: rights of religion, rights of gender equality," Harper said.

"We will withhold our comment until we see what exactly is in the proposal. And we will assure ourselves, when we look at that proposal, that the fundamental rights of Canadians are protected."

Meanwhile, some federal politicians have been swinging more freely at the PQ. Among them is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has raised the ire of the Pequistes.

At an event this week, Trudeau used the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech to lambaste the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

He appeared to draw parallels between the PQ policy and segregation.

"Oh, my god," said Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, when asked for a reaction Thursday.

"I think he should make a little bit of an effort to elevate the debate — instead of lowering it. I don't think it is helpful to get into this line of argument. I think we should try to have this debate in a respectful manner — even if we disagree sometimes.

"There's a little bit of contempt in that and I don't think it helps the debate."

At a partisan rally the previous night, Trudeau said that 50 years after King fought against the notion of second-class citizens, there are still people in Quebec who would reduce others' rights.

Trudeau said: "These days when you reflect on the 50th anniversary of that magnificent speech by Dr. King, who was fighting segregation, who was fighting discrimination, who was rejection the notion that there are second-class citizens, you see that unfortunately even today, when we're talking, for instance, about this idea of a charter of Quebec values, there are still people who believe you must choose between your religion and Quebecois identity, there are people forced by the state in Quebec to make irresponsible and inconceivable choices."

And thus began the latest chapter in the long, acrimonious history between the Parti Quebecois and federal Liberal leaders named Trudeau.

Premier Pauline Marois and several of her ministers urged Trudeau to keep the debate respectful, instead of deepening divisions.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier described King as an inspiration to Pequistes, as well, while Trudeau appeared only to inspire his frustration.

"I don't think Mr. Trudeau has any lessons to give to Quebecers," Cloutier said.

"You have to remember that his father patriated the Constitution without Quebec's consent. He does not act as a leader. He should ask his people to have an open-minded dialogue — and not put pressure on divisions.

"He's definitely adding words of division."

Polls suggest the idea is popular in Quebec — although it's unclear how high of a priority it is for voters there. Quebecers have also told pollsters they're interested in many other issues, like economic ones, above the charter idea.

In Quebec, the oppsition Liberals are resisting the plan, which they deride as a PQ attempt to distract from economic concerns.

The issue certainly does appear to have pushed other topics toward the margins of the province's political discussion.

At a lengthy news conference Thursday, about three-quarters of the questions put to Marois were about hot-button identity issues — the values charter, and language.

Marois suggested that her minority government's language bill, 14, would not be watered down anymore and might die on the order paper because of opposition obstinacy.

She declined to address the obvious followup question: Will that language issue, then, become a centrepiece of the next PQ election campaign?

Marois brushed off questions about another election.

As for Trudeau, he softened his words somewhat on Thursday.

He agreed that there was no parallel between the PQ plan and segregation, however he also said he he did not regret the remarks.

"The idea that you could be treated as a second-class citizen and barred access to working for the state, if you practice your religion, it's something that's worrisome," Trudeau said during a news conference.

"There is no parallel between segregation and the Quebec Charter. The parallel is certainly between the fight for openness and respect and acceptance for everything that everyone is."

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