09/17/2013 12:30 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec Values Charter: Parti Quebecois Opens Door To 'Improving' Religion Plan


MONTREAL - The Parti Quebecois says it could amend its controversial values charter based on public input it receives before submitting the minority-accommodation plan to the legislature.

The comments came one week after the release of the PQ government's proposals, in the midst of an acrimonious debate on minority rights.

That promise to listen, and potentially amend the religion plan before it's tabled as a bill this fall, echoes statements from the PQ during the summer.

"We're looking at ways to improve the proposal," said Quebec's minister responsible for Montreal, Jean-Francois Lisee, on Tuesday.

"We're listening. It's been less than one week, we're asking people to participate and we'll take these into consideration."

He offered no details on what the potential changes might look like.

Because the current plan has no opposition support the minority government could either water it down, split it in pieces, or preserve the entire thing for use in a later election campaign.

The PQ received an offer Tuesday from the Coalition party to quickly pass a watered-down version of the plan, but replied that it wants to give the debate some more time.

As it stands, the PQ is still defending the plan in its current form. Lisee called it "modern and progressive" and compared the wearing of religious garb to political slogans — which is forbidden for public servants.

"We have already established (public servants') neutrality for other beliefs," Lisee said.

"Individual freedom to tell the world that they are pacifist or environmentalist or vegetarian or in favour of oil sands stops at the Quebec public service's door."

Lisee said the same actors who were opposed to Bill 101 — the province's landmark language law — are now making similar arguments against the charter. The PQ has even run an interactive game on its website on that theme, playfully comparing 1977 media headlines to current ones.

Some aspects of the debate, however, are less than comical.

Reporters showed Lisee an online video of a woman in a Muslim headscarf being berated recently on a Montreal city bus.

A man shouted at the woman: "This is our home! With Marois, we're going to take off your toque." The video of the incident, which occurred in late August, was sent anonymously to Huffington Post Quebec.

The Quebec human rights commission says it's detected a recent rise in hateful incidents beyond what's been reported in the media.

Over the weekend, there were also reports of a Quebec City woman who was told to remove her veil in a shopping mall and whose son was spat upon. In another incident, a mosque was sprayed with pork's blood in Saguenay.

Lisee called the bus incident an act of "disgusting racism." He called it "intolerable" that anyone would insult a religious minority riding the bus.

He refused to accept the idea that such outbursts might stem from the political climate in Quebec. He said similar offenses occur elsewhere in Canada.

As for the debate in Quebec, he said, it's about government institutions — not individual freedom.

"The debate we're having is about the neutrality of the state. Nothing else," Lisee said.

Lisee urged Quebecers to have a respectful debate and, in particular, to be sensitive to those who wear symbols — as is their right.

The PQ wants to forbid public employees from wearing visible religious symbols including hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-average crucifixes.

One PQ member, Culture Minister Maka Kotto, said Tuesday that he stowed away some of his own customs to better integrate into Quebec society.

The Cameroon-born Kotto told reporters that he doesn't wear a panther skull on his chest — his traditional family totem — because he wants to fit in better in Quebec society.

Kotto told reporters the proposed charter will establish a set of clear rules and guidelines to allow newcomers to adapt to life here.

For the current tension to subside, Kotto said, the debate should evolve to "rational" exchanges instead of "emotional" ones.

The party that likely holds the swing vote on the issue doesn't want the debate to drag on.

The Coalition party called Tuesday for the PQ to accept a watered-down version of its charter, to get the divisive issue dealt with quickly. Leader Francois Legault said the province can't afford to find itself mired in a social crisis.

The Coalition says it would agree to a headwear ban limited to those in authority positions — for example, teachers and judges, instead of all government workers.

Legault painted that as a compromise from a PQ position he called too radical. The Liberals have said they would oppose the charter in any form.

"Can (Marois) table a bill quickly and put this behind us so that we can focus on the economy?" Legault said at the national assembly.

Premier Pauline Marois welcomed the offer but said Quebecers need to have a debate on the idea: "It's just been presented. It deserves a little more time, so we can hear the points of view of our citizens."

A poll this week suggests the plan has the support of most Quebec francophones, but that the support levels have dropped considerably.

Lisee predicted that, as with language laws, a social consensus will eventually take shape around minority accommodations.

"Let's take a deep breath. This is part of Quebec history, this is another chapter in Quebec's willingness to have a more neutral state," Lisee said.

"We're all in this together," he added. "We will not agree on everything, but we're all Quebecers in the end."

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