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Religious minorities face fight-or-flight choice as Quebec values charter released

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MONTREAL - The choices for Quebec's observant religious minorities now seem to boil down to fight or flight with the release of details of Quebec's proposed charter of values.

It bans religious symbols from the public service and would forbid employees from wearing such garments as the hijab, turban and kippa.

Compliance is another option, but not for Diaa Quarmauch, a Muslim woman who came to Canada from Morocco. Forget about asking her to remove her hijab.

"I will never change," the 34-year-old said Tuesday. "I will never take it off. I think the Muslims will leave Canada before they take off their veils."

Although religious minorities are open to debating the charter, the tone was more defiant on Tuesday.

Demonstrations are slated for later this week and a Muslim leader said his group is ready to go to court if necessary.

"I promise you, if this becomes law, we will help anyone to challenge this law all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to," said Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal.

The so-called "values charter" announced by the government would impose broad restrictions, unique in North America, on religious clothing for employees in all public sector institutions including schools, hospitals and courts.

While the cross above Montreal's Mount Royal and the crucifix in the legislature are OK because they are considered part of the province's heritage, government employees wearing a crucifix would have to conceal it. Religious headgear such as hijabs, burkas, kippas, veils and turbans would also be forbidden.

"This was a total disappointment, even shocking, to see a minister for all Quebecers to stand up and talk about discrimination as if it is just a matter of fact and try to legalize it by introducing laws to discriminate against minorities under his care," said Elmenyawi.

"We have a very long list of actions planned to engage Quebecers in a calm debate and we're trying to explain to them the damage that they would be causing because of this."

Isham Singh, who was born in India and raised in Quebec, agrees the issue needs to be debated. He said it would be better for the government to promote inclusive values and teach Quebecers about different religions.

"Definitely the neutrality of the state is important, definitely equality between men and women is of the utmost importance but unfortunately we feel that the means by which the Parti Quebecois intends to achieve the claimed neutrality is not appropriate," said Singh, a 25-year-old lawyer.

"There is a distinct difference between a person's ideology and the way they look. Just because someone wears a cross or a kippa or a turban doesn't mean they will be partial to one person or another."

The proposed charter dominated TV and radio on Tuesday and lit up social media. At least two parodies surfaced on YouTube, one with a mother warning her little girl not to wear a hat and scarf because she could be mistaken for a Muslim and another where people were told not to use the "plus" sign because others might think it was a cross.

Eve Couture, a spokeswoman for media tracking company Influence Communications, said there had been 6,000 to 7,000 tweets sent in Quebec on the subject over a 24-hour period.

"There was actually a tweet every two seconds on the subject in Quebec," she said, noting 15 per cent of those mentioned the crucifix in the legislature.

However, while the debate on Quebec identity was heated, it only represented a quarter of the tweets fired out over the Montreal Canadiens' acquisition of Daniel Briere in July.

Charles Taylor, who co-chaired a commission into reasonable accommodation set up by then-premier Jean Charest's government, said Tuesday the PQ proposal goes too far.

His thoughts were echoed by Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who said the proposed charter has serious implications for the promotion of diversity within society.

"If we want to have diversity and equality in our society, we need to have diverse leaders, we need to have diverse role models," she said, citing police officers, teachers and judges.

"This proposal would essentially say that's not possible, a person has to hide aspects of their diversity and certain people won't be able to fill those roles at all."

Mendelsohn Aviv said the charter leaves out a number of important values.

"I think that it violates values that many Canadians and Quebecers hold dear — the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, the right to autonomy and to make your own choices and very much the right to equality," she said. "I think it's a very troubling development and I think it's unconstitutional."

The union representing most of Quebec's primary and secondary school teachers welcomed the government's effort to address the reasonable accommodation of immigrants, which has been a simmering issue in the province for several years.

Union president Louise Chabot was cautious about the ban on religious accessories, saying she would have to consult with her members.

Another teachers union, the Federation autonome de l'enseignement, said it opposed the ban on religious symbols, saying it calls into question a teacher's right to work.

(With files from Pierre St-Arnaud, Lise Millette and Hugo Prevost)

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