Louise Arbour, a member of Canada's highest court from 1999 to 2004, wrote in a letter to Montreal La Presse she firmly believes the Parti Quebecois government's proposed charter violates the right to freedom of religion.
Arbour, who also served as the UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote that the prohibition of wearing so-called conspicuous religious symbols will mainly target Muslim women who wear a head scarf.
"It is particularly odious to make women, who are already marginalized, pay the price," Arbour wrote. "Women, for whom access to employment is a key factor for their autonomy and integration."
Meanwhile in Quebec City, Claire L'Heureux-Dube offered her unconditional support for the proposed charter during hearings at the legislature.
The former justice said the charter should withstand any court challenge. And if necessary, the government could use the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, she added.
L'Heureux-Dube, a Supreme Court justice between 1987 and 2002, said she sees no discrimination in the most controversial aspect of the proposed charter — a ban on state employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.
The proposed legislation would ban public-sector employees, including teachers and daycare workers, from displaying or wearing religious symbols at work. It would also forbid public employees from wearing other visible religious symbols such as turbans, kippas and bigger-than-average crucifixes.
L'Heureux Dube said the wearing of religious symbols is not a fundamental right. And, she adds, no right is absolute.
Religious symbols "are part of the display of religious beliefs and not the practice of a religion," L'Heureux-Dube said. She finds it perfectly reasonable for the state to impose restrictions on its employees, comparing it to the state's restriction on political expression.
L'Heureux-Dube also took the opportunity to lash out at Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, accusing him of breaking from what she described as his past position as a defender of secularism and women's rights.
She expressed dismay the party had drifted away from its roots. She noted the Liberals frequently battled with the Roman Catholic Church, notably during the right to vote for women in 1940.
"I wonder how one can deny that great tradition of secularism," she said.
Also on Friday, the rector of the Universite de Montreal drew parallels between the PQ government and the totalitarian Franco regime in Spain.
Guy Breton said the move to ban state employees from wearing symbols reminded him of the excesses of the regime that was firmly in power for decades until 1975.
That comment drew the ire of PQ minister Bernard Drainville, the author of the charter, and a reminder from commission chair Luc Ferland to Breton to show more restraint.
Breton said the charter would create huge problems recruiting foreign academics. He noted his institution includes faculty members with 134 different nationalities.
From the get-go, Breton said the mindset in Quebec needs to shift.
"We need to stop being afraid, being afraid and giving the impression that because people are different, there is a danger in that," Breton said.
Drainville didn't appreciate the rector's comments, calling Breton's view an "amazing extrapolation" and an "abusive interpretation" of the government's charter.
- with files from Jocelyne Richer in Quebec City