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Values charter to be Quebec election issue?

Values charter to be Quebec election issue?Quebec Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship Bernard Drainville listens to Samira Laouni appearing before a legislature committee studying the proposed Charter of Values on secularism, Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

QUEBEC - The Quebec government insists it won't back down on its values charter and is ready to make it an election issue if need be.

Yet the minister responsible for the proposed legislation said Tuesday that such a scenario would clearly be the fault of the two main opposition parties.

Bernard Drainville said the Liberals and the Coalition for Quebec's Future have made it clear they will vote against the provincial budget, which is expected in a few months.

That would topple the Parti Quebecois minority government and trigger a provincewide vote, which would likely take place before the charter is voted on in the legislature.

"That would effectively mean the CAQ (the Coalition) and the Liberals would be making the charter an election issue," Drainville told reporters as public hearings began in Quebec City on the divisive Bill 60.

"If they decide to bring us down and the charter hasn't been passed, one of the consequences will be that it becomes an election issue."

Bill 60 would forbid public employees from wearing visible religious symbols including hijabs, turbans, kippas and larger-than-average crucifixes.

Both Drainville and Premier Pauline Marois reiterated Tuesday the government will not be swayed on the issue.

Banning "overt religious signs is something we're sticking to," Marois said in Montreal.

"It's a basic part of the project."

Drainville said the religious neutrality of the state must be "visible, apparent and concrete."

While Drainville never uses the word "firing," the consequences for employees who flout the law are clear.

"If a government worker considers the wearing of religious signs during work hours to be more important than the religious neutrality of the state and the respect for law, it will be their choice," he said.

"If a person refused to take off the religious sign, they would be confirming they are putting their religion above everything else, above the common interest and above the law."

The plan has fuelled heated debates in the province since it was unveiled last year and some opponents believe the PQ could use identity as a wedge issue in the election campaign.

Marois campaigned during the 2012 election on an emotionally charged pledge to introduce a "Charter of Secularism," notably aimed at restricting Islamic headwear in public institutions.

Critics of Bill 60 say the legislation is unnecessary and infringes on personal freedom. They have also accused the PQ of focusing on identity issues as a way to avoid talking about Quebec's economic situation.

The Quebec government argues the charter would shield the province from what it describes as encroaching fundamentalism and says it would provide protection against gender discrimination.

On Tuesday, Drainville called the proposed legislation a moderate document that offers tailor-made secularism for his province.

"It's a bill for Quebecers that reflects what we are as a society," he said.

"It's a moderate, well-balanced bill and the kind of state secularism that we are proposing is going to be a state secularism that is unique to the Quebec society."

Drainville said his party has worked very hard on the charter over the past year. He referred to the public hearings, which are expected to last two months and feature as many as 200 individuals and groups, as a first step toward its eventual adoption.

"I am convinced we need to pass the charter, but we can't cut any corners," said Drainville, the minister responsible for democratic institutions.

"Even if people are against the charter, if they have the impression they have been listened to and respected, they will be more inclined to respect it when it becomes law."

Marois, meanwhile, categorically denied she wants to go to the polls.

"We are not in election-mode or even pre-election mode," said Marois, who was elected premier in September 2012.

"If the Liberals and the Caquistes want to bring us down, that will be their decision.

"We are not thinking whatsoever about an election. We're putting the emphasis on employment and we have other irons in the fire."

- with files from Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal

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