MONTREAL - Pauline Marois downplayed Wednesday how her government would apply its cherished values charter after a Parti Quebecois candidate said categorically that public-sector workers disobeying the legislation would be fired.
The PQ leader avoided such directness in several grillings on the subject but indicated the government would attempt to help such employees find other jobs in the private sector.
Marois argued she doesn't want to see anyone out of work.
"Honestly, that's not what we want," Marois said when asked about possible firings.
"We don't want anyone to lose their job because of the charter. We're going to work with the person, help them, advise them."
In an interview with Montreal radio station 98.5 FM, Marois suggested her government would help state employees find private-sector work if they were fired for disobeying the values charter.
"We believe it is possible to find pathways to steer these people to other jobs that match their skills, because (the charter) does not touch the private sector," Marois said.
"We are only looking at the public sector."
Later in the day the PQ leader said she doesn't believe the proposed secular charter would result in public-sector employees losing their jobs.
Marois told a news conference ahead of Monday's election she is confident a prescribed transition period would give employees time to adapt to the charter, which forbids public-sector workers from wearing such religious garb as hijabs and kippas on the job.
"I don't think that (firings) will be the case because we will work on these issues with the different institutions and we will try to (find) some solutions in these circumstances," she said.
Marois was also not worried that the charter could prompt people to leave the province.
"I'm not afraid about that because we will respect all the religions, we will respect all the people. Here there is freedom and they will continue to practise their religion and I don't have any problem with that."
She added that immigrants will know what to expect when they come to Quebec.
"The rules will be very clear so if you choose to live in Quebec, you will have to respect these rules."
The PQ has been trying to get the charter front and centre in the election campaign after the first few weeks were hijacked by questions about sovereignty following a declaration by star candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau that he wants to have an independent Quebec for his children.
Identity politics had also proven fruitful for the PQ in the 2012 election when it won a minority government.
Marois wasn't able to escape sovereignty completely on Wednesday when one reporter asked if continually looking toward the next referendum would put Quebec into a dead end compared with the rest of the country.
She said the PQ would continue to defend Quebec's interests, pointing out it had recently negotiated a deal with Ottawa on manpower training and successfully fought Prime Minister Stephen Harper's choice of nominee to the Supreme Court of Canada.
"Every time Quebec has stood up, we have won," she said, dismissing Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard as someone who would sign the Constitution without condition, unlike previous provincial leaders.
Marois announced right at the beginning of the campaign that the charter would be the PQ's No. 1 priority, with the party hoping to capitalize on support for the proposed legislation off the island of Montreal.
While the notion of employees being fired is not a topic the government has entertained much, Marois was forced to comment Wednesday after one of her candidates raised the possibility of such dismissals.
Evelyne Abitbol was asked pointedly during a political debate Tuesday whether doctors who continued to wear a kippa would lose their job if the charter were adopted.
She first replied that doctors in such cases would be fired within a year before she backtracked and said there was a five-year transition period for hospitals.
Marois defended Abitbol, calling her a great supporter of the charter.
"She understands the charter and defends it with a lot of heart and passion and I'm certain that she doesn't wish, any more than I do, that people lose their jobs," Marois said.
The PQ leader said earlier this week she is ready to re-introduce the values charter as is and even go as far as to invoke the rarely used notwithstanding clause to ensure it is adopted.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard pointed to Abitbol's comments as proof that jobs would be lost in the charter era.
"We will never be complicit with such an unprecedented discriminatory measure in Quebec," Couillard said. "It's obvious that if the charter is taken to its logical conclusion, then it leads to people being fired and Madame Marois cannot deny it."
Couillard was asked in Trois-Rivieres what he thought about Marois saying her government would help people find new employment if they lost their job for wearing a religious symbol.
"Oh really," he said sarcastically. "So the person has to choose between her — because most of the time we talk about women —identity and a job. What a terrible thing to do.
"For the first female (Quebec) premier to take such an unprecedented discriminatory approach toward women is highly ironic.
"I'm not interested in what people have on their head. I want what's in their head. I want them to be good civil servants. And what they wear or don't wear, provided the faces are uncovered, has absolutely no impact on the way they carry out their responsibility."
Wednesday also saw the release of a new online poll of 1,012 Quebecers that pegged Liberal support at 37 per cent, compared with 28 per cent for the Parti Quebecois, 19 per cent for the Coalition and 13 per cent for Quebec solidaire.
The Ipsos Reid survey was conducted for CTV News between last Friday and this past Tuesday. It is considered accurate within 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In other campaign news, Couillard defended a $1.2-million severance package given to Gaetan Barrette, one of his star candidates, prior to his jump into politics.
Barrette, who was president of the federation representing medical specialists between 2006 and this year, said he was comfortable with the golden parachute.
He noted it was written into his contract and was voted on and paid for by federation members.
Couillard said he won't ask Barrette to step down and doesn't believe the payment will be an issue if he's ever called to negotiate with the federation as health minister.
"The links have been completely severed between him and the federation . . . . Plus, I know Dr. Barrette and I can tell you he's a tough and frank and interesting person to negotiate with," he said.
Marois was more than happy to address the Barrette situation, although she said she would refrain from a personal opinion.
"It's the people of La Piniere who will judge his past and present behaviour," she said, referring to his riding.
Coalition Leader Francois Legault was more categoric, saying Couillard should dump Barrette as a candidate if he doesn't give back the money.
He called the severance "absolutely unacceptable" and accused Couillard of lacking judgment.
Legault also jokingly admitted there was a certain amount of relief that Barrette is not running again for the Coalition, as he did in the 2012 election.
"You cannot imagine how happy we were this morning that he was no longer with us," Legault said in L'Assomption. '"Thank God, he's no longer with us' — that's the first thing my wife said to me this morning."
— With files from Canadian Press reporters Patrice Bergeron in L'Assomption, Martin Ouellet in Trois-Rivieres and Alexandre Robillard in Montreal
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