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Trudeau raises concern over Quebec's religious rights debate in first meeting with Marois

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to the media at English Bay in Vancouver on July 25, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has waded into Quebec's roiling debate over religious rights, saying he has serious concerns about the Parti Québécois government's proposals to ban religious head wear such as hijabs and turbans from the public service.

Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday that he raised his views with Premier Pauline Marois during his first meeting with the Premier. The Quebec government has confirmed that it will move forward with the contentious legislation, which is meeting with heavy criticism.

"I have enormous concerns about the limits that would be imposed on people, on their religion and on their freedom of expression," Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Quebec City after the meeting with Ms. Marois.

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Earlier, at a visit to an agricultural fair in Montmagny, Que., he said he failed to see what problem the proposed legislation was supposed to fix. "I'm worried that it's more about politics than it is about the rights of citizens. It's important the state and its institutions be neutral, but the freedom of expression, freedom of religion are freedoms that are accessible to all Canadians regardless of who they work for," he said.

The Quebec government has faced a storm since elements of its promised Charter of Quebec Values were leaked to a newspaper. According to the media report, which the government has not refuted, Quebec wants to prohibit religious symbols and articles of faith in public-sector jobs in schools, daycares and hospitals.

The PQ minister responsible for the file, Bernard Drainville, remained mum on the leak for the second day in a row. Manuel Dionne, a spokesman for Mr. Drainville, said the minister will table proposals for the charter when the National Assembly resumes sitting next month. He will follow up with legislation.

"The government will present its proposals to handle religious requests and to affirm certain Quebec values," Mr. Dionne said from Quebec City. "We want to establish clear rules on religious accommodations."

The reported proposals are already sending a chill through some immigrant communities.

At the QwaQwaQ Daycare in Montreal's multicultural Côte-des-Neiges district, child-care worker Hadjer Ben Houla said she would sooner switch jobs than remove her Muslim head scarf. "I will never take it off. I would choose another job first," the 52-year-old Tunisian native said.

Ms. Ben Houla added that she spoke to other Muslim women about the PQ proposals on Wednesday and all shared her concerns. They felt it would be unfair for Quebec to have accepted them as immigrants, knowing that they wore the hijab, only to introduce ground rules about their job possibilities afterward. In fact, Quebec has encouraged immigration from predominantly Muslim, French-speaking North Africa.

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"All they're doing is creating a false problem," Ms. Ben Houla said of the Parti Québécois.

Identity issues were a core component of the PQ's election campaign last year and Ms. Marois promised new rules on dealing with minority religious rights. She is on the record as saying the new Charter of Quebec Values would remove religious symbols from public institutions and would bar public employees from wearing symbols of their faith.

The meeting of Ms. Marois and Mr. Trudeau comes after the two were at odds over another controversy over religious freedoms in the province when the Quebec Soccer Federation banned turbans on the soccer pitch. When the issue erupted in June, Ms. Marois supported the move while Mr. Trudeau opposed it.

The Quebec Soccer Federation was suspended by the Canadian Soccer Association for the move, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) later clarified that turbans and other religious head wear were allowed on the pitch. The Quebec federation backed down and was reinstated.

Ms. Marois waded into the fray by saying the CSA does not have the authority to determine Quebec's rules. Mr. Trudeau said that "it is unfortunate that we are dealing with such an inexcusable situation in 2013."

Mr. Trudeau, a Montreal MP, is touring Quebec this week. The Liberals won seven of Quebec's 75 seats in the 2011 election, down from 14 seats in 2008 and 13 in 2006.

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With a report from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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