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Daughter defends parents after controversial testimony on Quebec secular charter

MONTREAL - A woman has defended her parents' testimony in favour of Quebec's secularism charter, insisting Monday that her folks are not racist and even friends of the family are black.

The Caron-Pineault family's pro-charter arguments last week drew a flurry of criticism, so much so that a YouTube video featuring excerpts of their appearance attracted more than 300,000 views by Monday afternoon — a rare feat for a parliamentary commission.

Manon Pineault said the public likely misunderstood her parents, who told public hearings into the charter last Thursday about their experiences during visits to the predominantly Muslim countries of Morocco and Turkey.

Genevieve Caron, Pineault's mother, recalled in her testimony how she was stunned to see people on all fours on small rugs while they prayed in a Moroccan mosque. She added how she was taken aback when asked to follow the custom of removing her shoes before entering the building.

Caron's husband, Claude Pineault, said people wearing Muslim veils tried to pickpocket him while he was shopping for souvenirs at a market in Morocco.

He told the commission it would be unthinkable to allow people in Quebec to walk around wearing such "disguises."

The family's comments were swiftly chastized on social media as being ignorant, but their daughter, who also testified at the hearing, disagreed with the critics.

"There was nothing controversial (in their remarks)," Pineault said Monday, noting the family is very open to other cultures and that her own children have friends from different backgrounds.

"My daughter is dating a black man and he's very well accepted at our house.

"We're not racist. Not at all — it's not even a question of that."

The family's comments came during public hearings into the contentious Bill 60, a proposal by the Parti Quebecois government to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols, such as the Muslim veil, in the workplace.

Pineault said it took courage for her parents to speak at the commission, though she insisted they had good intentions and thought their comments were misinterpreted by the masses.

Her father, she said, believes banning veils would help provide protection for Quebecers by ensuring people do not have their faces covered in public.

In the case of her mother, Pineault thinks Caron may have explained her experience in an overly expressive manner, saying her mom likely wasn't as flabbergasted during her visit to Morocco as she seemed when she recalled it to the hearing.

In a five-minute video of their statements, Caron says in French how she was surprised to be asked to remove her shoes before entering a mosque.

"What do you mean take off our shoes?" said Caron, who then described how she saw men and woman were separated by a curtain as they prayed.

"Praying on all fours on the ground on little rugs. I said, 'What is this?' "

In his statement, Claude Pineault said two people wearing veils over their faces brushed up against him to try and pickpocket him as he shopped in a Moroccan market. He said he pushed them and they ran away.

"Who was behind these disguises?" he said in the video, which was posted to YouTube on Friday and only showed part of their testimony.

"Women? Men? I don't know. But what I do know is it's unthinkable to allow people to walk around Quebec, in the streets, in public locations — anywhere but in residences and private locations — with these types of disguises."

He also said he was disturbed to hear the call-to-prayer chants of muezzins echoing day and night in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

Manon Pineault said her parents are open-minded and well-travelled.

"It's not because they haven't left their village — it's not true," she said of her folks, who live about 250 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

The Caron-Pineault family was invited to speak at the hearings after they submitted a brief to the commission that will examine the PQ government's identity charter over the next couple of months.

Manon Pineault said she appreciated the democratic spirit of the public hearings, which allow individuals on both sides of the argument to be heard.

"Everyone has the right to express their ideas — we're in a free country," she said in an interview from her home in the Quebec City area.

The proposal, which was introduced last fall, has prompted a heated debate in a province, where polls suggest more than half the population supports the bill.

The legislation would also forbid public employees from wearing other visible religious symbols including turbans, kippas and bigger-than-average crucifixes.

Proponents of Bill 60 say it's an important plan that would increase gender equality and shield the province from what has been described as encroaching religious fundamentalism.

Critics have called the minority PQ government's project unnecessary and an attack on personal freedoms that violates the federal and Quebec charters of rights. They also say the PQ has introduced the bill as a way to distract the population from what they argue is the province's sputtering economy.

Opponents believe the PQ could use identity as a wedge issue in the province's next election campaign, which some observers predict could begin as early as next month.

The president of one anti-charter group said Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the plan, is trying to win votes for his party from people like the Caron-Pineault family.

Remi Bourget said the government should instead be focused on educating the population about religious accommodation.

"There are a lot of people who are misinformed and who sincerely believe that their way of life is threatened by requests from immigrants, especially people who live outside the area of Montreal who are not really in daily contact with immigrants," said Bourget of Quebec Inclusif, a lobby group with a mix of federalist and sovereigntist voices opposed to the proposal.

But Bourget did not think they should have been be barred from addressing the hearings. He said picking and choosing who can be heard would be a "slippery slope" except in cases of hateful speech.

"(But) maybe they should have stopped them before they embarassed themselves," he said.

"It's not very good for the image of Quebec."

A woman who supports the charter, and who also addressed the public hearings, said people are often too quick to criticize those who express opposing points of view.

"We are concerned about the lack of participation from citizens in democracy, and when citizens do express themselves, we are pretty quick to treat them with condescension," said Michelle Blanc.

Although she disagreed with some of the family's statements, she said the criticism against them had gone too far.

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