Montreal - Quebec has launched its next debate on minority accommodation — and this one could make the erstwhile soccer-turban ban look like a leisurely stroll down the pitch.
The government is preparing to introduce long-awaited, controversial legislation that would restrict religious symbols in numerous places.
A media report Tuesday with leaked details of the Parti Quebecois government's "Charter of Quebec Values" said the proposed policy will prohibit public employees from donning Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear or visible crucifixes in the workplace.
The particulars drew swift condemnation from political adversaries and from a well-known philosopher, who likened the plan to the human-rights abuses of Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Parti Quebecois minority government hopes to cash in at the ballot box by championing a "secularism" plan that polls have suggested has considerable support in the province.
So the fiery debate that erupted over a recent ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields offered a sneak-peek of what could be in the political pipeline for the national assembly's fall session.
The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure that included unflattering headlines abroad. Inside Quebec, however, Premier Pauline Marois rushed to the defence of the soccer federation and accused its detractors of Quebec-bashing.
Political opponents quickly cast Tuesday's leak as a PQ "trial balloon."
The newspaper report said the PQ government is set to restrict public-sector workers in places like daycares, schools and hospitals from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, niqabs, kippas, hijabs and highly visible crucifixes. Some institutions, however, will be free to request exemptions from the government, according to the report.
The PQ's approach was roundly condemned Tuesday by civil-rights experts, including an outraged Charles Taylor, the internationally renowned philosopher who co-presided over Quebec's 2007 commission on the accommodation of minorities.
Taylor told The Canadian Press such measures would have a devastating impact on Quebec's reputation in the world and he feared it would keep entire communities out of public-sector jobs because of their religious convictions.
He said to find a comparable level of systemic exclusion, one would have to look to Russia.
"In Russia, if you believe that homosexuals should have the same rights as others you cannot be open about it. It would be considered propaganda, it's a type of crime of conscience," Taylor said.
"If we look at what is proposed here, for sure it does not go as far, but it says that if you have certain convictions you are a second-class citizen because those who have such convictions cannot apply for (a job) in the public sector."
The province, he added, would isolate itself if the PQ government digs in and moves forward with the policy.
"I challenge you to find another country in the hemisphere where we have this kind of exclusion," Taylor said. "There are countries much more diverse than ours, like Brazil, that will find this appalling."
He argued that it's one thing to ban a teacher from wearing a burka, because an impediment to clear face-to-face communication could have an impact on other people — namely, the students.
But he condemned a wall-to-wall, draconian approach.
If the Marois government drives forward with the legislation, it would likely face court challenges under the Charter of Rights, said Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey.
"The type of secularism that is being promoted goes beyond what is acceptable," he said in an interview, expressing hope that the plan would be struck down.
The PQ has already said it wouldn't hesitate to fight the courts on the matter, including using the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to override any verdict.
It has, in fact, stated rather bluntly that it would gladly wage a legal battle up to the Supreme Court over the issue — and would hope to use the clash with Canadian institutions to stir up support for its main cause of independence.
Past opinion polls have suggested such policies enjoy broad public support with voters in Quebec. A majority have told pollsters they supported the turban ban and also viewed hijabs and kippas as a cultural threat.
What's less clear is how the policy will hold up in the long term, in two key arenas: the court system, and the ballot box.
There's no guarantee the minority government could get the policy through the legislature or win an election on it.
In the legislature, the policy would need the support of one major opposition party and both the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Quebec have reacted coolly — especially the Liberals.
There's no evidence yet that the issue is an election-winner, either.
Even if the PQ's approach proves popular, other polls suggest that only a minuscule sliver of Quebec voters actually care about this as an election issue — and that what really drives the Quebec electorate are bread-and-butter issues like health care, education and the economy.
A Leger Marketing poll during last year's election campaign listed immigrant integration as a top electoral priority for a paltry one per cent of respondents — at No. 15 on voters' list of issues.
Other identity issues hardly fared better in that poll. Sovereignty was the 10th most-commonly cited issue, and the protection of French was at No. 12.
Health care, by comparison, was the No. 1 issue, cited by 35 per cent of respondents when asked to choose their top two most-important issues.
Lowering taxes, fighting corruption, school fees, creating jobs, trimming down the civil service and protecting the environment — all were among the issues ranked higher by the 1,648 respondents to the online poll.
The PQ had already campaigned last year on a promise to introduce what was originally dubbed the "Charter of Secularism."
The Marois government has since rebranded the plan as a charter of "Quebec values" — with those values including gender equality and secularism.
Liberal leader Philippe Couillard has dismissed the idea in the past and shrugged it off Tuesday as a "trial balloon."
He called it the PQ's attempt to divert the public's attention away from economic issues.
The province has seen its economic, political and demographic clout plummet within Canada as it bleeds people to other provinces, year after year, and fails to attract and retain immigrants at the same rate as faster-growing provinces.
The fate of the values charter will likely be decided by the Coalition party.
Coalition Leader Francois Legault criticized the Marois government for going too far, saying he would try to propose a middle-ground solution that falls between the approaches of the PQ and Liberals.
Grey, meanwhile, said he doesn't agree with the inevitable conclusion drawn by those who will paint Quebec as an intolerant place.
"In fact, it's one of the most open and tolerant societies," he said.
He does believe, however, that the proposal swerves the PQ away from the party's tradition as a defender of human rights. He recalled the PQ's battles for gay rights in the '70s and '80s under the leadership of Rene Levesque.
"I hope this (policy) doesn't get passed, I hope people realize that that isn't either what Quebec is about, or what the PQ is about."
-With files from Alexander Panetta and Martin Ouellet