Thousands of people gathered in Montreal to speak out against Quebec’s proposed charter of values, which has sparked a heated debate across the country.

Multiple faiths joined together Saturday to march through Montreal's downtown core in protest of the controversial charter, which would restrict public servants from wearing religious symbols – such as kippas, hijabs, turbans and larger-than-average crucifixes – in the workplace.

The event began with speeches at a downtown park, and from there, protesters marched for two-kilometres through the city. Organizers expected 20,000 people at the event, and said it would be the first of several actions against the proposed charter.

Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal said the crowd came together to send a message: “no interference with religion, no interference with freedom.”

John Walsh, a retired Catholic priest, said he joined the march in a show of solidarity with people of different religions.

“We're in one society, we're one people, we're all Quebecers and we want the best society that we possibly can build together,” he told CTV Montreal.

Earlier this week, the province’s governing Parti Quebecois unveiled its plan to secularize and remove religious symbols from public office, a move that would affect all public servants, including government employees, doctors, nurses and teachers.

Opinion polls have indicated that there is support for the charter, but mostly in the rural parts of Quebec.

Employers will be given an opt-out grace period of five years, but the long-term goal of the Parti Quebecois is secularization.

Laila El-Hakkani, who moved to Canada from Morocco, said she was shocked by the PQ’s proposal.

“When I came here, I came here like this,” she said, pointing to her head scarf. “Why now you're obliging me to change my values?”

Mireille Paquet, an associate professor of political science at Concordia University, says that the charter reinforces strong stereotypes about Quebec.

"That is that people in Quebec would be more racist, more intolerant, and that sovereignty is also about exclusion," she told CTV News Channel.

Paquet said criticism is coming from parts of the country where multiculturalism is a valued part of society, but that other, less diverse regions favour the proposal.

"I think that it is important to realize … that for the government, it is seen as an integration policy," Paquet said. "The impact of it might lead to exclusion, but I think that it's a complicated topic."

Many from the Jewish community were not participating in Saturday’s protest because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) released a statement saying that they are in favour of religious neutrality and the equality of men and women, but added the charter will unnecessarily divide Quebecers.

With a report from CTV Montreal’s Amy Luft