MONTREAL - Quebec's proposed charter of values has already been the subject of heated debates, threats of court challenges and predictions it will drive immigrants out of the province if it becomes law.
The document that would ban public sector employees — including teachers and daycare workers — from displaying or wearing religious symbols such as the hijab will go under the microscope again as public hearings begin Jan. 14.
Positions have already been firmly staked out and opinion polls indicate Quebecers are almost evenly split on the issue, although there is a slight tilt in favour of the charter off the island of Montreal.
And that's where the next question lies. Given those areas are where the Parti Quebecois draws most of its support, it is entirely possible Premier Pauline Marois could once again make identity politics — and specifically the need for the charter — a main plank of an election platform.
An election is a possibility because the opposition Liberals have threatened to vote against the provincial budget expected in March if they don't like what they see. They would need the support of the third-place Coalition for Quebec's Future, which has also been unimpressed with the government's economic record, to bring down Marois.
Marois opted to strengthen the charter rather than meet opposition demands to soften it, lessening its chances of survival as a bill.
Martin Papillon, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, warns there is some danger in the PQ counting too much on support for the charter to propel it from being a minority to a majority government.
"If the support doesn't continue to grow, they will increasingly be perceived as catering only to their base and not to the broader public interest," he said in a telephone interview. "For a party that is advocating sovereignty, this is not a good approach at all and they're aware of that."
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has also served notice his party is looking to claim some of the secularism terrain with a vow to combat relgious extremism in the province.
Couillard says the Liberals support some elements of the proposed charter such as a prohibition on people getting or giving public services with their face covered.
"The charter presented by the PQ completely misses the real issue, the real preoccupation of the population — the threat to us all that is posed by religious extremism and religious fundamentalism," he said.
Concerns about the charter have already been raised by former premiers Jacques Parizeau, who famously blamed the 1995 referendum loss on "money and the ethnic vote," and Lucien Bouchard. Both have said it goes too far.
The PQ's pointed interest in religious minorities and their clothes can be traced back to the 2007 provincial election when it was pushed to third place in the legislature by the Action democratique du Quebec.
Until it embraced identity politics during an intense debate on accommodation of minorities, the ADQ was a perennial also-ran. After 2007, it found itself as the official Opposition.
It didn't take long for the PQ to shift gears after its worst electoral defeat and soon it presented a controversial citizenship bill that would have kept some immigrants from holding public office.
In the 2012 election campaign, the PQ pushed full steam ahead, reciting a litany of complaints about supposedly exessive minority accommodation and vowing to bring in a charter of secularism.
The plan provoked an uproar, with the PQ's harshest critics describing it as xenophobic. The party eked out a minority government, edging the Liberals by four seats.
Leaks of supposed details of the proposed charter brought more criticism as the government appeared poised to ban such religious symbols as kippas, hijabs, turbans and ostentatious crosses from the public service.
When the actual document was released in November, it was actually tougher in its provisions, despite calls for a softening of the proposed legislation.
It did get a new name that is a tad wordier than the previous Charter of Quebec Values or Charter of Secularism.
It is now officially known as the Charter Affirming The Values Of State Secularism And Religious Neutrality And Of Equality Between Women And Men, And Providing A Framework For Accommodation Requests.
Papillon said it's simplistic, however, to dismiss the secularism push as pure political opportunism.
"It's not new," he said. "It's been there, latent, for much longer than 2007 and certainly the ADQ instrumentalized this politically and the PQ is doing this right now fairly successfully but I think they're tapping into something real. . . .
"There's also a deep belief among a lot of Pequiste supporters but also the PQ leadership that Quebec has to differentiate itself from the Canadian multicultural model, has to borrow from France," he said.
The charter has drawn as much support as it has opposition.
"My whole life, I have fought for gender equality, and I have always believed in order to maintain that equality, we would have to remain vigilant," said Janette Bertrand, the well-known leader of a pro-charter group known as the Janettes.
"At this moment, the principle of gender equality appears to have been compromised in the name of religious freedom."
Ronald Schondorf, the director of neurophysiology at the Jewish General Hospital, has no problems with equal rights for men and women. He says, however, that attempts to give the state a secular face do give him pause for thought.
"I'm both the child of immigrants and I'm a child of Holocaust survivors so any attempt to curtail liberties by the state in what I consider a draconian fashion sets off alarm bells in my head," he said.
Schondorf, whose hospital has already come out against the charter, says he'll never take off the kippa he wears every day. He says he's never had any complaints and that professionals are capable of doing their jobs objectively.
Schondorf suggested Quebec is experiencing a love-hate relationship as it tries to redefine itself between its religious past on the one hand — for example, maintaining the crucifix in the legislature because it is part of the province's heritage — and its present-day identity, which he says is to a degree anchored in its religious past.
"Whether it's an election ploy or not, Madame Marois certainly knows this is a very powerful fulcrum upon which to lever emotions at least of a sizable fraction of the Quebec population."
Maria Mourani, who was expelled from the Bloc Quebecois caucus and then quit the party after criticizing the PQ proposal, went so far as to renounce sovereignty because she said she believed Marois was targeting a sector of the population to win votes.