09/12/2013 02:46 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

Montreal board of trade slams PQ values charter ahead of multicultural protest

MONTREAL - Montreal's business community has urged the Quebec government to modify its proposed charter of values because it fears the legislation would harm the city's reputation and economic performance.

The Montreal Board of Trade is warning that the city has more to lose with the charter than with the status quo.

"The government's proposal is generating a great deal of concern in the Montreal business community," Michel Leblanc, president of the organization, said in a statement Thursday.

"It could harm the city's reputation and its economic performance."

The PQ plan would forbid Quebec's public employees from wearing more visible religious symbols — including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-average crucifixes.

Leblanc said the availability of qualified workers in sufficient numbers is the most important economic challenge businesses will face in the coming decades.

"This is why the business community is intent on doing everything possible to help integrate immigrants to the workplace and attract foreign talent. But the government's proposal stigmatizes workers who wear religious symbols, who are often immigrants. It is in direct opposition to what the city's business community wants."

Speaking to reporters near Montreal, Premier Pauline Marois categorically dismissed the board of trade's request.

"They can express their point of view but I don't share it," she said.

The business group's comments are further evidence that the government is on a collision course with Montreal on the controversial issue.

On Wednesday, the mayors of all 15 demerged cities on the Island of Montreal adopted a resolution rejecting the charter and said they would opt out of its provisions.

The three leading Montreal mayoral candidates have already indicated they would do likewise, meaning every community on the island of 1.8 million residents would opt out.

The association representing the 15 demerged towns said the plan shows a "complete lack of knowledge of Montreal's multicultural reality and will simply lead to division and exclusion."

Polls have suggested a majority of Quebecers support restricting minority accommodations. However, other polls indicate voters place the issue relatively low on the list of political topics they care about.

Some pundits are speculating the PQ might be trying to drag out the charter debate to make Quebec's identity — and not other issues, like the economy or social services — the heart of the next election campaign.

The charter is likelier to be more popular in outlying regions of the province where there are more small-c conservatives. That's where the now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec garnered much of its support in 2007 as it surged to official Opposition status after it campaigned extensively against minority accommodations.

In Quebec City on Thursday, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard also drew comparisons between diversity and the economy.

"Societies, especially in North America, that can manage diversity in a positive and inclusive way, do well economically and attract investment and quality immigrants," he said.

"Societies that can't show that openness and inclusion will suffer economically. I think that's pretty clear already."

Marois once again took issue with the view that the charter is an attack against individual and religious freedoms.

"Anyone in the world who wants to come to Quebec, providing we have the capacity to greet them, is welcome, because we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion here," she said after a business speech in Terrebonne, Que.

"And that will continue.

"The one thing we mustn't do is have people believe that what we are doing prevents religious freedom."

In Quebec City, Bernard Drainville, the minister who is piloting the project, rejected a proposal by Couillard that the legislation be limited to issues where there is a broader consensus such as the religious neutrality of the state and the requirement that one's face not be covered when giving or receiving government services.

One of the first major public displays of opposition to the charter will take place this Saturday with a demonstration in Montreal that organizers are hoping will attract thousands of people.

Representatives of the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and native communities have all indicated they will participate.

Adil Charkaoui, spokesman for the Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia, described the demonstration as the first step in actions that are planned against the PQ's plan.

He told a news conference Thursday that other steps would include support for any women targeted by the proposed legislation, including helping them before the courts.

"We oppose these modifications, we reject them, the proposals are a new form of secular dictatorship," Charkaoui said.

Charkaoui also said Muslims would be encouraged to learn English and become bilingual — not so they could leave Quebec — but so they could stay in Montreal and fight for their rights.

Charkaoui is expecting 20,000 to attend Saturday's protest, which will end at Place du Canada, the site of a massive pro-federalist demonstration just a few days before the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, warned of victimization and people losing their jobs if the charter of values is approved by the legislature.

Asma Falfoul, a 21-year-old McGill University student who wears a hijab, said she is devastated by the proposed charter.

"Honestly, I really feel like it's targeting women for the most part," she told the news conference.

"It's extremely frustrating because it's just feeding on the stereotype that Muslim men have a handhold on women and they're controlling them and they're controlling their lives — and that's not the reality."

— With files from Melanie Marquis in Terrebonne, Que., and Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City