QUEBEC - The Quebec government suggests it's been emboldened by public support to toughen its controversial values charter.
It should become clear within a few days whether that new, beefed-up plan will be tabled in the legislature, where it faces near-certain failure, or instead put to the people in a snap election campaign where the Parti Quebecois hopes to win a majority government.
The PQ professes to be planning a bill this fall, despite a hostile legislative environment where opposition parties are demanding with increasing vehemence that the plan be pared back.
Then again, there are whispers it might call an election first for Dec. 9.
The PQ will likely make its intentions clearer at the end of the week, after a two-day cabinet retreat where ministers will mull over political strategy.
For now, the PQ claims to have the public on its side.
The minister responsible for the plan said Tuesday that he's considering a pair of changes that would make the plan more restrictive. He said he might remove the crucifix from the legislature, and claw back the current opt-out provisions for institutions.
Those are the ideas Bernard Drainville claims to have drawn from the 26,000 comments posted on the government's website.
He said 47 per cent were entirely favourable of the plan, and 21 per cent were mostly favourable but requested changes. Drainville lumped those two categories together and said that means 68 per cent favour the charter. He said only 18 per cent were opposed.
But he wouldn't release the comments. He said that would betray the trust of people who shared their stories and their opinions.
"People didn't write to us for these comments to be made public," Drainville said. Drainville did read some of the complimentary ones, though, at Tuesday's news conference.
He also said that the main changes requested by commenters were that the crucifix be withdrawn from the legislature; opt-out provisions be tightened; and that the plan's name be modified to "secularism charter."
As presented recently, the values plan would forbid people with headscarves, turbans, yarmulkes and larger-than-usual crucifixes from working for public institutions.
For now, the plan would allow institutions to withdraw for five-year periods. The City of Montreal has already said it wants out, as have other institutions.
The plan would be diluted further if presented in the current legislature.
The Liberals are dead-set against the clothing restrictions. And the Coalition Avenir Quebec, which wants the restriction applied to far fewer state employees, is taking an increasingly strident rhetorical tone against the government.
"Let's be really clear: This is a debate about the Muslim religion. I think it's bad for our society," said Francois Legault, whose CAQ would likely hold the swing vote on the issue.
"It's become really like a trial of the Muslim region in Quebec... I see serious risks of this getting out of hand... This isn't the Quebec society I know."
The Liberal party is even more deeply opposed. It disagrees with Legault's self-styled compromise, which would limit the restrictions to state employees with coercive powers, like judges and police officers.
"For sure, that might seem like an attractive option at first. But when you look at it closer it doesn't stand up any better under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said.
"That's why we're telling the public and government: Steer clear of these questions. Don't continue with a law that is an unprecedented assault on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Quebecers. Unite Quebecers. It's your duty as a government."
He added: "This is an appeal to the lowest common denominator of human nature. It's being done, and I hope this isn't the case, but apparently it's with electoral aims."
Both main opposition parties said they would be willing to pass parts of the charter that tout the neutrality of the state, and that insist on public services being delivered without face-coverings.
But their demand for a quick compromise hasn't won over Premier Pauline Marois — at least not yet.
"I'll ask the ... opposition for a bit of patience," Marois told the national assembly.
"This legislation will be tabled soon and then we'll have the chance to debate their proposals, debate our project."
There is speculation she might call an election first.
Such a move would help place identity issues at the heart of the PQ's election campaign. Opponents accuse the PQ of trying to use the issue to distract voters from a lacklustre economy.
One free-market think-tank, the Montreal Economic Institute, picked up on that theme Tuesday by tweeting that the provincial debt had increased $966 million since the PQ released its religion plan on Sept. 10.
As for an election, a poll published Tuesday in Montreal La Presse today suggested it could be a tossup: it placed the PQ four percentage points behind the Liberals, but with a sizeable lead amongst francophones who are a majority in virtually every riding outside Montreal.
Still, the CROP poll suggests, that lead among francophones was smaller than the share the PQ received in last year's election. The Liberals nearly won the popular vote, and held the PQ down to the smallest governing caucus in its history.
The web poll of 1,000 respondents was conducted from Oct. 17 to 21.
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