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After turban ban, a broader battle looms in Quebec identity debates

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MONTREAL - If a turban ban stirred such passions, what will an even broader debate over religious accommodation lead to in Quebec this fall?

It's a question being asked as the Parti Quebecois government prepares to introduce its "Charter of Quebec Values" after the summer break.

It's expected the charter will put limits on religious accommodations, such as restricting Muslim headwear in public institutions.

The recent ban on turbans on the soccer pitch — which was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation after external pressure — offered a glimpse of what could be in store.

The ban triggered a political uproar and made headlines around the world. But in Quebec, Premier Pauline Marois defended the soccer federation and fired back at its detractors whom she accused of Quebec-bashing.

Quebec has been down this road before.

More than half a decade ago, the Taylor-Bouchard commission was tasked with investigating issues of reasonable accommodation.

The commission was called by the previous Liberal government in the leadup to a provincial election in 2007, at a time when a string of tabloid stories was drawing attention to minority religious accommodations.

There was the story of a gym next to a Jewish synagogue that had to tint its windows to shield children from the sight of women in workout clothes, and another about a group of Muslim visitors who got a sugar shack to remove the pork from its traditional pea soup.

The now-defunct ADQ party took the lead in playing up such issues. The Charest Liberals bought time by calling an inquiry. And the PQ, which mainly sidestepped the matter back then, suffered its worst electoral drubbing in decades.

The commission report ultimately advised Quebec to adopt an open secularist model, which favours the neutrality of the state with respect to religion. The report was largely shelved, however, and religious accommodation remains a hot-button issue politically.

This time the PQ isn't shying away from the issue. It's leading the charge.

Last month, PQ minister Bernard Drainville waded into a Montreal neighbourhood dispute involving waiving parking regulations for Orthodox Jews during the high holidays, when they don’t move their cars for religious reasons.

Drainville argued a line has to be drawn somewhere and such exceptions make "no sense."

"We cannot manage a society like that," he said.

One expert on ethics and identity politics worries opening up another debate over Quebec values could be reduced to further attacks on "vulnerable religious minorities."

"Like a TV series in its 10th season, it'll just get boring," said Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at McGill University.

"It'll get even more bitter than it is."

There are signs, though, that the PQ is prepared to modify its proposal.

It was originally billed as a "Charter of Secularism," but the government changed the label last month. In its revised form, the PQ said the charter will focus on Quebec values such as equality of men and women before the law regardless origin, religion, or mother tongue.

That could lead to a healthy debate on issues such as the status of women in the workplace, Weinstock said.

"Perhaps, more hopefully from my point of view, it could enshrine a law that would actually elicit some debate that isn't about religious accommodation," he said.

Focusing on religious and ethnic minorities may be in the PQ's interest.

The party made identity politics a key part of last year's election platform and could be planning to use it again. With only a minority government, the PQ could be thrust back into an election anytime starting this fall.

A recent government-commissioned opinion poll suggests there could be a political payoff. On a scale of one to 10, the average respondent ranked religious accommodation as "problem'' at 6.5.

Daniel Cere, a religious studies professor at McGill, said the PQ charter will likely help firm up the divisions between two competing approaches to Quebec secularism.

One is along the lines the Taylor-Bouchard report advised, while the other argues for more state intervention to put limits on religious accommodation.

"It's not clear that there is enough wind in the sails of the open secularist model, at this point anyway, to be able to carry this discussion," Cere said in an interview.

"I don't have a lot of hope for it, because I think it's probably going to tilt in the direction Taylor-Bouchard was trying to avoid — this kind of closed secularism."

Quebec's religious and ethnic makeup, meanwhile, continues to change.

Foreign-born immigrants now make up 23 per cent of Montreal's total population, according to the latest census figures, up from 21 per cent five years earlier.

Only Toronto and Vancouver have more.

At a street sale to mark the Fete nationale holiday last week, a multicultural mix of families and couples strolled by the store offerings in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a working-class neighbourhood with a growing number of immigrants.

Charles He, a Chinese immigrant who attended the street sale with his wife and young daughter, said he feels at home in Quebec.

"It's definitely a good day, everybody is happy," He said of the holiday.

He added, though, that the debates over language and culture can be "a bit much."

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