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Quebec Liberals stake out new position on PQ’s secular charter

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard attends a news conference in Quebec City on Jan. 21, 2014.

CLEMENT ALLARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After weeks of hesitation marked by the dissension of one of their senior caucus members, Quebec Liberals have finally adopted a position on the Parti Québécois government's secular charter.

If elected, the Liberals would prohibit public-sector employees from wearing the niqab, burka and chador. The party would also keep the crucifix on display in the National Assembly "as a symbol of Quebec's religious heritage." The Liberals also want the wearing of religious symbols by public-sector employees to be dictated by rules on a case-by-case basis rather than by law as proposed by the PQ.

Religious accommodation is a two-way street, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said. Quebec has a duty to protect religious freedom, he said, but it should also allow religious accommodation based on certain criteria such as the equality between men and women. Mr. Coullard acknowledged the need to appeal to the majority of Quebeckers who support the PQ's proposed ban on overt religious symbols in the public sector.

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"What we want to send as a message is that we do understand when Quebeckers say: 'We are an open and inclusive people but we want our values, our traditions to also be taken into account and taken into consideration.' That's the main message," Mr. Couillard said.

He justified the banning of the three items of clothing worn by some Muslim women because they were symbols of women's oppression that "translate a message of withdrawal, of submission of women" uncalled for in the public sector.

The Liberal Leader was confident that banning these specific garments would hold up in court and rejected the arguments made by the Quebec bar association that even these prohibitions would amount to a violation of religious freedom under the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.

On Monday, former Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin was asked to leave the caucus because of her refusal to support the party position. She wanted a more sweeping ban on religious symbols that would have barred those in position of authority such as the police, judges, prosecutors and correctional officers from wearing religious symbols.

"Mr. Couillard thinks he will solve the problems with this position but his problems have only just begun. I told him on Monday and I told my colleagues that this position announced [Tuesday] is the best recipe to lose the next election," Ms. Houda-Pepin said in an interview with Radio-Canada.

On Tuesday, a Muslim woman warned the National Assembly committee holding public hearings on the secular charter that the wearing of the veil or headscarf was a "barometer" in society to gauge the growing influence of fundamentalist Muslim groups.

Rakia Fourati is originally from Tunisia and has lived in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She was part of a pro-charter group of women called the Janettes who wrote a manifesto supporting the ban on religious symbols in the public sector. She appeared before the committee on a personal basis to express her opposition to religious fundamentalism.

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"In Montreal north, young girls between the ages of 10 and 13 must swear to wear the headscarf all of their lives and to swear by the Koran. … For me, these are alarming symptoms that fundamentalists are taking their place [in society]," Ms. Fourati said during the hearings. She applauded the stand taken by Ms. Houda-Pepin in defending her beliefs.

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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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