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PQ pulls plug on language law as Liberal MNA breaks ranks on secular charter

Diane De Courcy, the Quebec Minister responsible for French Language Charter, responds to Opposition questions in Quebec City on March 12, 2013.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois minority government has been forced to withdraw its controversial legislation to strengthen French language protections after failing to win support from the opposition.

But the PQ scored a political point on its even more contentious secular charter, as a Liberal MNA spoke out against her party's opposition.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, which had been negotiating with the PQ on the language bill, has accused the PQ of using language and religion as wedge issues to boost support among francophone voters ahead of a potential election next spring.

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A pillar of Premier Pauline Marois's political agenda was the reinforcement of the French language through Bill 14. After several weeks of public hearings last spring and late-night negotiations with the CAQ party on Wednesday, the PQ pulled the plug on the legislation when talks failed to reach a compromise.

The minister responsible for the French-language charter, Diane De Courcy, argued that the CAQ's proposals on language would have stripped the essence of the bill. She concluded that it would take a PQ majority government to amend the language law commonly known as Bill 101 to adopt stronger language legislation.

"What I proposed were moderate changes and I made important compromises to the CAQ. But that wasn't enough for them. … We will have to wait to form a majority government in order to reinforce Bill 101," Ms. De Courcy said.

The minister said she was willing to make several changes to the bill, such as offering more flexibility in enforcement to help employers with only 26 to 49 employees comply with the stricter rules on the use of French in the workplace. The PQ was also willing to amend provisions in the bill limiting the number of francophone students attending English-language colleges. The PQ also dropped a provision eliminating the exemption granted to children of francophone military personnel to attend English-language schools.

The CAQ language critic, Nathalie Roy, lashed back, saying Ms. Marois deliberately staged the impasse to argue that her party alone could defend the French language.

A similar fate may await the PQ's secular charter when it comes up for a vote next spring. The CAQ has demanded changes to the secular charter to limit the ban on overt religious symbols to public-sector employees in positions of authority.

But dissension has emerged within the Liberal party over that charter. In a letter to the Canadian Press, Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim woman in the Quebec National Assembly, broke ranks over the party's position on the chador, a type of Muslim dress, saying she was "flabbergasted," "hurt" and shocked" that her party would tolerate women wearing the cloak that covers the whole body, but not the face.

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She questioned whether her party's views on equality between men and women under Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was modelled on countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where religious fundamentalism restricted the rights of women.

"I refuse any drift toward cultural relativism under the guise of religion to legitimize a symbol like the chador, which is the ultimate expression of oppression of women, in addition to being the symbol of radical fundamentalism," she wrote.

Earlier in the day, CAQ Leader François Legault invited the PQ to consider a more moderate ban on religious symbols in the public sector, barring only judges, police officers, crown prosecutors, prison guards and public school teachers from wearing overt religious symbols "I want to remind Ms. Marois that she forms a minority government and that the CAQ hold the balance of power," Mr. Legault said. "It would be possible for Ms. Marois to adopt a major part of her bill … if she is willing to choose the interest of Quebec over those of her political party."

However the PQ government has no plans to review the secular charter legislation until after the public hearings, which begin on Jan. 14, 2014.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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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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