09/22/2013 10:17 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec Minister In Hot Seat Over Charter Of Values


The Quebec minister in charge of his government's planned charter of values was in the hot seat Sunday night on the province's top TV talk show, defending the Parti Québécois's controversial proposal against accusations that it's hypocritical and would violate international treaties.

Bernard Drainville, Quebec's minister for democratic institutions, appeared on the Radio-Canada show Tout le monde en parle, where he forcefully debated the merits of the PQ's effort to bar public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols while on the job and to force anyone receiving public services to do so with their face uncovered.

"The reason we're proposing this is that if the state is neutral with respect to religion, then its representatives must be, too," Drainville told host Guy A. Lepage.

"You all have a right to equality, and that's why I as the state am imposing neutrality — it's the best way to protect freedom of religion and conscience."

Lepage asked Drainville why, in the name of neutrality, it wouldn't be OK for public employees — including everyone from daycare workers to judges and teachers — to wear a headscarf or turban, but the PQ won't remove the crucifix currently installed above the Speaker's chair in the provincial legislature.

"The choice we made about the crucifix is that of our heritage, of history. There's still a lot of Quebecers who are still attached to this crucifix, not because they're particularly Christian or Catholic, but because they see it as a symbol of our people," Drainville replied.

"Lots of people see a cultural symbol, a symbol of our history, and Quebecers are attached to that history and don't want to turn our backs on it."

Drainville's fellow guest on the show, Quebec sociologist and historian Gérard Bouchard, lambasted the minister over the charter of values, saying it violates people's freedom of choice and religion, which are guaranteed by international treaties. Bouchard co-authored a major study of religious and cultural accommodations in Quebec five years ago, following a provincially funded commission of inquiry.

"We took a meticulous look at the practice of accommodations and concluded it was going well," he said. "You launched yourself into this operation in ignorance of the reality."

Bouchard repeatedly asked Drainville what studies the government had done to determine that there was a need to restrict its employees' religious freedoms.

Drainville replied that he had heard from "representatives of teachers, school boards, people working in the health sector" and other employers who didn't know how to deal with their workers' requests for religious accommodations and who implored the province to bring in limits.

The Parti Québécois promised to enact a secularism charter as part of its platform during last year's provincial election.

The proposal has touched off a fierce debate in Quebec and rounds of protests both denouncing and backing the concept.

Polls initially suggested a majority of Quebecers was in favour of a charter of values, but recent surveys suggest support has fallen.

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