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Culture wars await reopening of Quebec legislature

Two of the most controversial social issues facing Quebec are expected to fuel political debate when the National Assembly reconvenes Tuesday after the winter break. The Parti Québécois opposition will likely raise questions about recent developments in the defence of the French language, as well as the accommodation of religious minorities, especially the treatment of Islamic garb such as the niqab.

The language issue remains the most potentially damaging to the Liberal government. The advisory council that oversees French language policies recommended a "clear" response to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last October that struck down provisions limiting immigrant access to non-subsidized private English language schools.

The government was given a year to comply and promises to table legislation later this spring.

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The language law requires that all francophones and immigrant students attend French-language schools. But a growing number of wealthy immigrants and francophones have been paying to send children to an English-language "bridging school," in some cases for only a year. This gives them quick access to an English public school or a publicly subsidized English private school.

The advisory body, the Conseil supérieur de la langue française, stated that if the government wanted to avoid further court challenges it should put bridging schools under the same restrictions as public schools and publicly subsidized private schools.

The Liberal government has appeared hesitant about following the advisory body's recommendations and is considering other options.

Jean Charest's Liberals faces another predicament in dealing with the human-rights complaint of an immigrant Egyptian woman who was expelled from language classes after insisting on wearing the Islamic veil known as a niqab.

The government is juggling with the idea of banning the niqab and other religious symbols in some public places and promises to table guidelines later this spring.

The debate about the niqab underscores the desire of many Quebeckers to protect the value of equality between men and women against what many consider to be a symbol of the forced subjugation of women by religion.

The government wants to create the impression that is getting tough with religious fundamentalists, but has yet to define guidelines for fear that they may run counter to Charter rights.

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However, the Liberals are aware of the need to act soon. A recent public opinion poll showed that 75 per cent of Quebeckers believed the Liberals were being too lenient with demands made by religious minorities and wanted the government to take firm action.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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