09/12/2013 09:51 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

Ontario hospital uses draft Quebec charter to lure health care workers

TORONTO - Paging Quebec's doctors and nurses: if you're worried about the proposed restrictions on religious clothing in your home province, an Ontario hospital group is looking to hire.

Lakeridge Health, which runs four hospitals east of Toronto, is turning the controversy over Quebec's "values charter" into a recruiting drive for health-care professionals.

It released a cheeky ad Thursday on social media, asking Quebec doctors and nurses to consider a move to Ontario.

It depicts a woman wearing a hijab and a stethoscope with the slogan, "We don't care what's on your head. We care what's in it."

The ad is slated to appear Monday in McGill University student newspaper in Montreal. But it's already attracted plenty of attention.

The proposed Quebec legislation would prohibit hospital workers and other public sector workers from wearing religious clothing like hijabs, kippas and turbans in the workplace.

While polls indicate that most respondents in Quebec support the legislation, it's sparked a contentious debate elsewhere in Canada.

The recruiting drive isn't about picking a fight with Quebec, said Lakeridge president and CEO Kevin Empey.

"This isn't to send a salvo at Quebec," he said. "This is because we have to recruit people."

Lakeridge, which operates in one of Ontario's fastest-growing regions, is looking to fill about 230 jobs, Empey said. Even though they've been hiring 20 to 60 people a month for over a year, Lakeridge has to look outside Ontario for new graduates and experienced professionals.

Putting out the usual ad wouldn't have sparked much interest, since Lakeridge doesn't have the same kind of name recognition as other hospitals like Toronto's Sick Kids, he said.

"How do you get someone intrigued enough to actually go to our website and look us up?" Empey said. "So if we're going to go farther afield, we have to do something that finds a way to get your attention."

Hospital officials debated the ad for more than a week, concerned that it would backfire in Montreal, he said. But so far the response has been "amazing."

"Even as it went out we were going, 'OK, are we going to get crucified, or are we going to get some people interested?'" he said.

"I've had direct emails from Calgary to Ottawa that have emailed me directly."

Health Minister Deb Matthews called the ad "provocative," but said it reflects Ontario as a place that celebrates diversity.

"What Lakeridge said in that ad speaks for all of us," she said. "We do care about people's skills and people's abilities. Whatever clothing ... we're cool with that here in Ontario and I think it's our strength."

Salam Elmenyawi, the president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, is urging cultural communities to stay calm in the face of the proposed legislation and not rush for the border.

"I thank all the people across Canada who are reaching out and opening doors," he said Thursday.

"But I tell my fellow Quebecers, men and women of religious minorities, to please don't panic," he said in a news conference in Montreal.

"Stay, this is our country, this is our home, we will work together to improve the situation and make sure whatever laws and rules will be not be exclusive."

But Elemenyawi also admitted he is worried about victimization, people losing their jobs and that people may consider leaving Quebec. A multicultural protest is planned for Saturday in Montreal.

Earlier this week, one of Ontario's longest serving MPPs tabled a symbolic motion that calls on the legislature to oppose any bill to restrict or prohibit freedom of expression and religion in public places.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has said the inclusive nature of Canadian society is worth preserving, and she would oppose anything that would attack that inclusion.

— with files from Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal.