Quebec kicks off public testimony on proposed ban of religious symbols

Hundreds signed up to give their opinion on charter summarized by some as 'your headscarf or your job'

The Quebec government website shows examples of acceptable (L) and unacceptable religious symbols allowed to be worn by public employees according to its proposed Charter of Quebec Values. Public hearings on the proposal started Tuesday, with hundreds signing up to eventually speak in Quebec City, the capital of the Canadian province.

QUEBEC CITY, Canada — The debate over Quebec's controversial plan to ban public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols shifted from the streets to the legislature on Tuesday as public hearings began in the province's capital city.

Following months of demonstrations both for and against the Parti Quebecois government's proposed secular charter, citizens made their case in a more formal setting – a stately, red chamber at the parliament in Quebec City.

Tensions were high. 

After several people made presentations in favor of the charter, the testimony of a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf drove to the heart of a debate that has divided this Canadian province.

Faced off against the government minister who proposed the charter, Samira Laouni argued that prohibiting headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans and conspicuous crucifixes is discriminatory and unnecessary.

Samira Laouni, head of a Montreal-based multicultural group, was among the speakers on the first day of public testimony about a proposed charter in the Canadian province of Quebec that would ban the wearing of religious symbols for public employees. The hearings, expected to go on for months, were held in Quebec City, the provincial capital.
Benjamin Shingler

Laouni, the head of a Montreal-area multicultural group, outlined the problem facing many religious Quebecers – the ban would force them to make an impossible decision between their job and their faith. 

“There is no study that shows someone who is wearing a religious symbol can't do their work,” she told the hearing.

On the whole, Laouni said her group is in favor of a secular state. The group offered a compromise by applying the headwear ban only to employees in positions of authority, such as police officers and judges.

The Parti Quebecois proposal would apply to all public employees, including teachers, doctors, nurses and public daycare workers.

In all, the commission heard from eight people on Tuesday, many of whom were in favor of the plan. 

More than 250 citizens and organizations registered to present at the hearings and they could drag on until April.

An 'essential' ban?

Even before the commission began, however, the government signaled it won't budge on the most controversial aspect of the charter aimed at ensuring secularism of the state.

Bernard Drainville, the government minister responsible for the charter, said the ban was "essential” and something that “cannot be ignored.”

“It's a bill for Quebecers that reflects who we are as a society,” Bernard Drainville told reporters outside the hearings.

“It's a moderate, balanced bill.”

 He called the hearings an important first step toward making the bill law.

But Quebecers remain deeply divided over the plan and polls suggest it has created tension and fueled stereotypes.

Support appears greater in the rural, francophone hinterland than in metropolitan Montreal.

The charter is unlikely to pass in its current form.The Parti Quebecois holds a minority in the legislature and doesn't have the support of opposition parties to make it law. There's speculation an election could come as early as March – with the charter at the forefront of public debate playing into the ruling party's hand.

On Tuesday, most of those who presented were in support of the charter or a variation of it.

The first to come forward, a former union boss, called the plan a “step in the right direction,” even if it meant some people could lose their jobs.

“The ideas laid out by the charter are in line with Quebec values,” Rejean Parent told the hearing. “They are very reasonable.”

A malaise in Quebec

Sam Haroun, a retired history teacher originally from Lebanon, was also in favor.

He argued Quebec has been suffering from a “malaise” for more than a decade as it struggles to accommodate an influx of religious minorities. 

“We need to find a solution,” said Haroun, who was less certain on how the plan should be implemented. “I worry about the polarization of Quebec society.”

Future hearings may not be so harmonious for the Parti Quebecois.

Individuals and institutions against the charter – including universities, school boards and hospitals – have also submitted briefs and will make presentations. Several have publicly denounced the plan as discriminatory and impractical.

And there's no sign opposition is slowing on the streets either.

A grassroots group organized a day of action in advance of the hearings calling on Quebecers to wear a religious symbol to protest against the charter.

Many complied, wearing kippas, headscarves and comically-large crucifixes to work on Monday.

Sama Al-Obaidy, a 27-year-old Muslim woman who grew up in Montreal, came up with the idea after she was accosted in the subway by a woman who tried to remove her headscarf.

 Al-Obaidy explained in an interview she was disheartened that nobody came to her defense. She said the demonstration was aimed at raising awareness and dispelling myths.

 “We wanted to make sure we reach out to everybody,” she said. “Regardless of people's opinions on the charter, violence has no place in Quebec society.”

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