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Cogeco CEO Louis Audet says Quebec's proposed values charter harmful to economy

Cogeco President and CEO Louis Audet speaks during a business luncheon in Montreal, Tuesday, January 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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Cogeco President and CEO Louis Audet speaks during a business luncheon in Montreal, Tuesday, January 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL - The head of cable and media company Cogeco Inc. has stepped into Quebec's political debate about a charter to promote secular values, saying it's scaring off immigrants.

Cogeco chief executive Louis Audet said Quebec's proposed charter of values, which would restrict the wearing of religious symbols by public sector employees, will harm the province's economy.

"At this time, the charter is causing fear among immigrants," Audet said after a speech in which he criticized the proposed charter of values.

"What we want is to have economic growth," he said.

Audet told the Montreal Chamber of Commerce that he sees the charter reducing immigration to Quebec and, by extension, the wealth that newcomers help create.

"This message isn't of a nature to attract immigrants, which we depend on for our economic growth."

"Not only will it discourage them, it may incite some who are already here to leave," he added.

Audet wants the Parti Quebec government to drop its plans for a secular charter of values.

The minority PQ government doesn't have enough support to pass the charter and is expected to campaign on the issue in an election, which could be held in early spring.

Audet is one of the few business leaders in Quebec who have spoken out against such a charter. A recent poll has found that 60 per cent of Quebecers supported the secular charter, which would forbid public employees from wearing visible religious symbols including hijabs, turbans, kippas and larger-than-average crucifixes.

"I can't help but think that the charter of Quebec values' bill is a bill that's harmful to our economy, and ultimately, our ability to pay for social programs that our elected members will want to favour, regardless of which party is in power," he told the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.

But Premier Pauline Marois has said the charter doesn't worry foreign investors who might be interested in setting up shop in Quebec and recently announced in London that two companies would be heading to Montreal to do business.

The Quebec government will be giving British firm Cinesite a $1.2-million interest-free loan to establish an office in Montreal and create about 200 jobs in the next four years. Marois also announced a $10-million government investment in White Star Capital, a risk capital firm.

Meanwhile, Audet also cited a recent CROP poll for Cogeco which found that half of Quebecers believed that private business does not benefit society.

He suggested that all high school students should have to take a basic economics class to better understand the role of businesses.

Cogeco (TSX:CGO) is a major employer in Ontario and Quebec, providing cable TV, Internet, home phone and businesses services.

Local chamber of commerce president and CEO Michel Leblanc said his organization is also against the values charter.

"It's creating the impression that Quebec is a closed society to immigrants," he said. "We want to attract immigrants whether it's for work or investment. If we can't attract immigrants because of the charter, it's going to harm Quebec's economy."

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