The Parti Quebecois' charter of values has prompted a backlash within the feminist movement that has reached all the way up to the head of a government body on women's issues.
The dispute centres on what impact the PQ's charter might have on women, and how the government has failed so far to bolster its case with empirical data.
It has even resulted in a statement condemning the Quebec government — issued on the Quebec government's own letterhead.
The head of the Quebec status-of-women organization accused the government of political interference after it appointed four pro-charter members to the body, the Conseil du statut de la femme.
Julie Miville-Dechene said the nominations came just one week before the organization was to meet to discuss the PQ's plan to forbid the wearing of religious symbols in the public service.
In a statement issued Thursday on government letterhead, Miville-Dechene called it her job to defend the group, which is supposed to be non-partisan and which "has, at its heart, the interests of all Quebecers, regardless of their origin."
She said that, until the latest nominations, half the council's members preferred the idea of conducting some research to evaluate the impact of the charter on women. She all but accused the government of implementing policy on the fly.
"Not one study exists," Miville-Dechene said.
"We don't even know, above all, how many public employees wear a veil and we don't know what these women would do if confronted with the obligation to get rid of their veils.
"Will they feel liberated or, on the contrary, will they be obliged by their partners or their entourage to leave their jobs and stay at home?"
Miville-Dechene called the nominations a serious affront to the independence of the organization. One of the four nominees, Lucie Martineau, head of a Quebec public-service union with 42,000 members, came out last week in support of the PQ plan.
Premier Pauline Marois was asked at a news conference about the dispute Friday. But, for the second day in a row, she declined to answer a question on the charter.
"Nice try," the premier replied, telling the journalist to stick to the topic of the day: a forestry announcement in Lac-St-Jean.
Agnes Maltais, the cabinet minister responsible for the status of women, denied any political interference. She explained the nominations by noting the council had twice expressed support for banning religious symbols in the past.
"There were two consecutive opinions, in 2008 and 2011, that said the government had to move towards secularism," she told reporters Friday in Quebec City.
She said that if all 18 members of the Conseil want to review the position, it's their decision. Meanwhile, Maltais welcomed Miville-Dechene's idea of an impact assessment.
"If she wants to do studies to better understand the effects of what we're proposing, then she should do it," she added.
Maltais admitted that she has had a difference of opinion with Miville-Dechene, who was named head of the council by the then-governing Liberals in 2011.
Alexa Conradi, the president of the Quebec Federation of Women, also denounced the government nominations.
"We're really scandalized by these nominations which look like partisan nominations," she said in an interview.
Conradi admitted that the women's movement is divided over the charter issue but, that aside, she said it's wrong to manipulate the Conseil.
She said women's groups are normally consulted on the nominations but, in this case, her federation only had four days to propose names.
"Normally that process lasts a month," Conradi added.
The Opposition Quebec Liberals asked that the nominations be withdrawn.
Christine St-Pierre, the Liberals' culture critic, praised Miville-Dechene for having the courage to stand up to the government.
"She's not protecting herself, but the independence of the council," she told reporters.
St-Pierre also agreed with the idea of a study as suggested by Miville-Dechene.
She noted that when Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, was asked by reporters how many people who worked for the government wore religious symbols, he had no response.
Francoise David, a member of the legislature for Quebec solidaire, also criticized the nominations, calling them a flagrant attack on the group's independence.
She said the PQ tactic reminded her of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, whom she accused of being hostile to opposing views and of using dirty tricks to achieve partisan ends.
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