01/14/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Quebec secular charter hearings set to begin

Quebec’s national assembly begins public hearings today into Bill 60, the Parti Québécois government’s controversial proposed legislation also known as the secular charter.

If passed, Bill 60 would bar all public sector employees from wearing overtly religious symbols.

More than 250 individuals, institutions and community organizations are expected to appear at the hearings, which are scheduled to run until Feb. 7.

Members of the public had until Dec. 20 to submit either a brief or a request to appear at the hearings.

Opinions across Quebec are deeply divided on the proposed legislation, which was tabled in November by the government. Far from unifying Quebecers around the principle of secularism, Bill 60 has largely divided them along linguistic lines.

According to a Léger Marketing poll released Monday by the Montreal Gazette newspaper and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, 48 per cent of the 1,000 Quebecers surveyed favour Bill 60.

The poll suggests that support for the secular charter is far more firmly rooted in francophone Quebec, with 57 per cent of French-speaking respondents in favour of it. Support for Bill 60 plummeted among those polled who belong to other language groups, with only 16 per cent expressing strong support for it.

Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Bill 60, said the hearings are not likely to alter the draft legislation in significant ways.

“We’re open to new ideas that will better the charter, but firm on the principles and the values that are embodied [in it] — equality, neutrality,” he told CBC News.

Michelle Blanc will be one of the first to appear at the hearings. The popular blogger is part of a group of influential Quebec women calling themselves "the Janettes" who are promoting support for the secular charter. 

Blanc told CBC News that she supports Bill 60’s emphasis on a secular Quebec.

“If we state that we want a non-religious society, and that statement is shown in the public workers’ neutrality, to me that’s good, and to me that’s freedom,” she said.

Those opposed to the secular charter worry that it will have just the opposite effect and deprive Quebecers of their fundamental rights. In its brief to the hearings committee, Montreal’s largest English-language school board said Bill 60 will instead endorse “bullying.”

"If you are putting out a law where you're saying it's inappropriate to wear a religious symbol … and you're being treated differently and you're being taunted, you're being ridiculed, you're being bullied ... the government is not making our job very easy to combat that," school board spokesman Michael Cohen told CBC News.

Political observers say a spring election could bring the hearings to an abrupt conclusion. If that’s the case, there’s little doubt that Bill 60 would be a dominant issue on the campaign trail.

“It’s the last card that [the minority PQ government] has to maybe be able to have a majority,” said Alec Castonguay, political bureau chief for the news magazine l'Actualité.