QUEBEC – The Parti Quebecois government, already involved in a political battle to toughen the province’s language law, has placed another emotionally charged identity issue on the back burner.
The government has delayed its plan to set limits on religious accommodations until the fall and even begun referring to it in less contentious terms.
The PQ campaigned last year on a promise to introduce a Charter of Secularism, notably aimed at regulating Muslim headwear in public institutions. It is now referring to its plan as a “charter of Quebec values.”
“The equality of men and women, that’s going to be one of the values, equality, extremely important, which we will affirm in this charter of Quebec values,” said Bernard Drainville, the cabinet minister responsible for crafting the policy.
The secularism plan was one of the main hot-button issues pressed in the last PQ campaign — another one being language.
A language bill has already been watered down from what the PQ proposed in the election, and it will have to be diluted even further to have any hope of passing through the minority legislature.
Bill 14 has no support from the main opposition party, the Liberals, while a smaller opposition party, the Coalition, is demanding a rewrite in exchange for its possible support.
What is Bill 14? Find out more here.
Drainville says the secularism delay will allow the government to continue consulting Quebecers.
“There are many people who have told me, ‘This is a debate that is very important for our society,'” Drainville said in Quebec City on Wednesday.
He said there would be “groups of people, concerned people” who will help create the position.
In the meantime, the government is seeking to rally public opinion.
It has commissioned a poll on public attitudes toward minority accommodations, leaked the poll to a newspaper, and posted it Wednesday on the government website.
The poll asks respondents how much, on a scale of one to 10, the issue of religious accommodation is an “important problem.”
The average respondent ranked the “problem” at 6.5 out of 10.
The Leger Marketing Internet poll of 1,506 Quebecers — including 500 non-francophones — also says 78 per cent of respondents believe the religious accommodation issue remains important.
The March 12-17 survey has a margin of error of 2.53 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Opposition parties are skeptical of the government’s intentions.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard expressed fear of the divisions the initiative might create.
“Do we want a society where we’re going to be looking under people’s shirts to see if they’re wearing a crucifix or a Star of David?” Couillard asked.
“I don’t think Quebecers want a society like that.”
He questioned whether the minority PQ government wasn’t engaging in an effort to prepare the ground for the next election campaign.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the PQ did this in the context of electoral preparation, desperately looking for themes to rally the population.”
Coalition party Leader Francois Legault, on the other hand, wondered whether some hidden snafu had caused the delay until fall.
“Is there a fight in caucus that is preventing the tabling of legislation now?” he asked. “Why is the PQ backing off again?”
Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Universite Laval, suggested in an interview that there might be other factors behind the government holding off.
He pointed to the outcry facing Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for language laws, as she tries to harden that legislation.
“Diane De Courcy has enough problems with her bill and this would add to that because it touches on the same clientele, especially the ethnic groups, who don’t completely accept the French language (law) and who do not accept the charter on secularism,” he said.
Pelletier said the PQ is likely using the effort to weaken the Coalition party and force it to take positions in front of the francophone electorate, where it currently splits support.
Premier Pauline Marois promised last February the government would consult on the minority-accommodations issue.
On Wednesday, Drainville said the government’s proposal will address Quebec values such as equality before the law regardless of language, origin or religion.
The PQ has already said the ban on religious symbols would not extend to employees who wear a crucifix necklace.
It would not extend either to the crucifix hanging in the legislature, which Marois has said is part of Quebec’s heritage. The cross first found its way onto the legislative chamber’s wall in 1936 under the government of Maurice Duplessis.
The proposed ban on religious symbols could extend, however, to some non-religious aspects of Quebec’s history as selected by the PQ. Artistic references to the monarchy, for example, could also disappear from the legislature.
The debate on so-called reasonable accommodation has been festering in Quebec since 2007.
Watch an interview with Anne Lagace-Dowson on what has changed since the “Reasonable Accommodation Crisis” in Quebec.
That year, the now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec made spectacular, if short-lived, political gains as it played to fears that Quebec’s identity was being threatened by multiculturalism.
At the time, some tabloid media carried frequent reports about affronts to Quebec’s culture — such as the case of a sugar shack that served pea soup without pork in order to please a group of Muslim visitors.
In that election, under the resolutely cosmopolitan Andre Boisclair, the PQ shied away from such issues and suffered its worst defeat in decades.
The party has since sought to reappropriate its mantle, under Marois, as a staunch defender of Quebec culture.