Quebec readying to tackle religion, radicalization in wake of Paris terror attacks

MONTREAL—Quebec politicians have relaunched a debate over the place of religion after the deadly terror attacks in France which have renewed fears about Islamic radicalization in the province.

Events last week in Paris, following on the killing of two Canadian soldiers in terror attacks last fall, has critics urging Quebec’s Liberal government to get to work on new measures to combat fundamentalism. But the opposition Parti Québécois, currently in the middle of a leadership race, is also diving into a sensitive debate cut short when the party lost power in last year’s provincial election.

On Thursday, former journalist Bernard Drainville, a PQ leadership hopeful, will unveil a new version of his controversial values charter, a bill that would ban public-sector employees such as teachers, doctors and bureaucrats from wearing religious symbols at work. The legislation is a controversial part of the party’s re-election plan but the initiative died when the PQ was tossed from power.

“At one point I was pretty much defending it alone, but I never gave up because I believe profoundly in this idea,” he told the Journal de Montreal earlier this week.

With governments around the world examining their vulnerability to a Paris-style terror attack and Ottawa drafting new anti-terror laws, the timing of Quebec’s debate may not be surprising. But the reaction here to carnage at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was particularly forceful in a province whose francophone majority still takes many of its cultural and societal cues from France.

Premier Philippe Couillard, battling perceptions he is not sufficiently concerned about identity issues, was criticized for not flying to Paris along with other world leaders for last weekend’s solidarity march. But he said Tuesday his government is working on a law that would emphasize the religious neutrality of the state and deal with requests for faith-based exemptions from normal rules in the workplace or when accessing government services. The delay, however, has opened a strategic window for the PQ, which may also be seeking to engage core supporters as it rebuilds from the opposition benches.

Drainville, who declined an interview request, said the bill is timely and vital.

“What happened in Paris, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu or in Ottawa, that shouldn’t stop us from affirming our values,” Drainville told the Journal de Montreal. “It’s not for the extremists to make the law in Quebec.”

The new PQ bill could limit the ban on religious symbols to newly hired public-sector workers, according to reports. Other leadership candidates say the ban should be applied only to judges, police officers and jail guards — those invested with the coercive powers of the state. There could also be measures to help police tasked with tracking radicalized individuals.

But the rumoured revisions haven’t quieted the anxieties of those veterans of the last debate over the values charter.

“I think we have to have legislation to put an end to the debate. At some point it has to stop and what we need, as the Liberal party has proposed, is a law that will bring us together rather than divide us,” said Haroun Bouazzi, a member of the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la Laïcité au Québec (Association of Muslims and Arabs for Secularism in Quebec).

The values charter was also blamed for a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the province after reports that veiled women in particular had been badgered and stigmatized.

Kathleen Weil, Quebec’s minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, said she has seen “a lot of scars, a lot of pain” over the last year.

While questions about integration and religious freedoms have died down since last spring’s election, sensitivities flared after last October’s attacks were traced back to what police have described as homegrown Canadian terrorists. Martin Couture-Rouleau, who carried out the attack south of Montreal, converted to Islam after business problems and what friends described as a depression. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the son of a restaurateur father and a mother who was a high-ranking federal bureaucrat, struggled with drugs and petty crime and reportedly sought solace in religion before making the decision to launch a siege of Parliament Hill.

What the two men had in common was that they were raised in Quebec, a fact that prompted the provincial government to assemble its roundtable on radicalization. More than two months later, Weil said the participants — faith groups, community organizations, police and government departments — are set to hold a first meeting on Jan. 23.

There are many areas for improvement and Bouazzi’s group has lobbied for the involvement of government officials from the education and labour ministries in addition to the ministries of immigration, justice and public safety. Education and jobs, he said, can stave off the desperation and delusions that sometimes push young people into the arms of online jihadis, recruiters and charismatic preachers. He hopes for some concrete solutions can be reached by the summer.

Weil too acknowledges that this has become a more pressing priority, particularly with the frayed nerves in the wake of the Paris attacks, in which three Islamist gunmen killed 17 people before being killed themselves in shootouts with security forces.

“There is this fraternity and this deep love for France. There’s no doubt of that . . . there’s a real strong tie with France,” Weil said. “We can relate and we feel for them, but I think there’s enough people with discernment who see that there are fundamental differences and are very happy that we have the model that we have.”