QUEBEC - The Marois government has moved to re-set the tone and legal framework of majority-minority relations, tabling a values charter that, if adopted, will shake up the daily lives of thousands of Quebecers.
But with Montreal civic politicians already criticizing the plan, nurses, teachers and bus drivers wondering where it leaves them, and the one party that was initially open now expressing doubts, it was hard to find someone with good things to say about it.
Released Tuesday after weeks of speculation and politically timed leaks, the package sets the scene for a roller-coaster debate about secularism over the coming weeks.
The Parti Québécois government is determined to press ahead in the belief its electoral future depends on it.
And despite Montreal’s opposition, PQ officials are convinced the so-called silent majority — francophones living off the island who decide election outcomes — will rapidly embrace it.
Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville minimized the evident opposition to the plan.
“The time has come for us to rally around clear rules and common values that will put an end to tensions and misunderstandings.”
And the government is going all out, launching a taxpayer paid $1.9-million multi-platform promotional campaign to sell the package.
In a brochure, soon to be distributed to all Quebec homes, Drainville positively bubbles.
“The time has come to rally around our common values,” he says in the brochure. “They define who we are. Let’s be proud of them.”
But it was a day full of surprises, and the biggest was that Drainville’s package goes far beyond just the attire of inpiduals in the public sector — the element that has made most of the headlines.
He proposes sweeping and far-reaching amendments to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well — all in the name of a new, non-secular state determined to make itself neutral.
The PQ proposes entrenching in the charter the explicit legal recognition of the concept of secularity and notes the charter itself has precedence over other laws, which gives the measures even broader scope.
At his news conference in the lobby of the legislature, Drainville agreed the amendments, indeed the whole new philosophy — inspired off the French model — will affect private companies and organizations as well as public in the long run.
“Absolutely,” Drainville said. “We think private enterprise will effectively be guided in the future by the guidelines we are giving ourselves.
“There are many employers who are scared to find themselves in the face of requests for reasonable accommodations, and we are responding to these fears.”
In all cases, reasonable accommodation would have to pass a four-part litmus test set out by the government: Does the request discriminate, does it respect the equality of men and women, is it reasonable, and if it’s a public service, does it respect the neutrality of the state?
Drainville also says the charter amendments — which require the unanimous consent of the legislature — will act as a shield for eventual legal challenges.
Premier Pauline Marois has already said she believes the proposed charter will be legal and that Quebec will not need to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“We believe we are on solid ground,” Drainville said refusing to release any legal opinions the government may possess to back that position.
But the focus Tuesday still centred on the more immediate consequences of the values charter — especially the issue of religious symbols and clothing.
Despite leaks saying all symbols would be banned, the proposal says small religious symbols would be allowed.
What would be prohibited is the wearing of what the proposals calls “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols by government employees.
Quebec also plans to make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered while providing or receiving a state service.
A long list of public employees would be affected by the attire rules, starting with those who have the power to impose sanctions, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers and correctional agents.
But as foreseen, Quebec plans to proceed softly down the path of state secularism by allowing for opting out.
In the case of CEGEPs, universities and municipalities, the board of directors or municipal council could adopt a resolution allowing its personnel to wear religious symbols.
“This authorization would be valid for a period of up to five years and renewable,” the government’s documents state. “It would not apply to the obligation of having one’s face uncovered.”
The result is that dozens of organizations such as hospitals, universities and municipal councils are expected to rapidly take advantage of the opting-out clauses on the attire requirements should the plan ever become law.
But Drainville warned the renewal clause cannot become a crutch.
“It is not an en ticement for these establishments or institutions to pull out of the overall framework of religious neutrality and particularly the regulations with regards to the wearing of religious symbols.”
Defining what is conspicuous could rapidly become a problem, but the government plan does not include a formal measuring system.
Drainville said there are no plans to increase bureaucracy to patrol the new attire rules.
“If there is room, in certain cases, for interpretation, we think these things can be resolved by common sense and a discussion, a discussion in good faith,” Drainville said.
The whole package will be included in a bill to be tabled this fall.
As expected, Quebec makes provisions for religious heritage and will allow a religious symbol such as the crucifix over the speaker’s chair of the National Assembly to remain as well as the cross atop Mount Royal.
But there were a few exceptions that rapidly drew mirth on social media and from Canadians outside Quebec.
Workers can still, if they want, put up a Christmas tree in their office or down at the daycare centre.
And elected officials including MNAs are not covered by the dress code.
Private schools and non-subsidized daycare centres are not covered by the plan.
And it will be up to the courts to decide if witnesses will still swear to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,’ by holding their hand on the Bible.
The product of five years of internal debate in the PQ, the charter was a key element in the party’s election platform as it tried to make mileage off the identity card.
But it was the subject of instant criticism as a proposal that would pide Quebec and might even be unconstitutional. Polls, on the other hand, showed Quebecers in favour of the package, fuelling the PQ’s drive to charge ahead.
The government’s failure to cash in on the other identity issue of the platform, beefing up the French Language Charter, provided further incentive.
Drainville plans to hold public consultations, but not in the same form as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which roamed the province, sparking clashes and nasty headlines.
Drainville plans to borrow a system Diane De Courcy used to consult Quebecers on Bill 14: Quebecers will be invited to submit their opinion online (http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/en) or by calling a new values hotline.
But the issue will collide with Quebec’s electoral schedule as the days of Marois’s minority government run down.
In that case, the bill may never be passed.