Quebec bans face covering in public services, raising worries among Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – Quebec has adopted a law that will force people to show their faces when taking the bus or borrowing a book from the library, pushing ahead with legislation that is being criticized for targeting Muslim Canadian women.

Bill 62, which the Justice Minister described as a North American first, requires one’s face to be uncovered when giving or receiving public services. The law marks the outcome of a contentious, decade-long debate about the place of religious minorities in Quebec.

Details of how the law would apply have yet to be worked out, but critics are concerned it will empower civil servants such as front-line hospital workers to refuse service to a woman in a niqab or burka.

The Justice Minister, Stéphanie Vallée, confirmed that the law would apply to anyone taking a city bus. “To take public transit, you have to have your face uncovered. All through the ride,” Ms. Vallée said on Wednesday.

The Liberals used their majority in the Quebec National Assembly to adopt the law on Wednesday, 66 to 51. The opposition parties voted against it, with the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec saying it didn’t go far enough.

The legislation is already being criticized by Muslim organizations, civil-rights groups and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, whose city will bear the brunt of the law’s provisions as home to most of Quebec’s immigrants. He called the idea of a city librarian turning away a woman in a face covering “totally unacceptable.”

Legal experts say they expect the law to be challenged in court.

“I have never seen a more flagrantly unconstitutional law,” Montreal human-rights lawyer Julius Grey said in an interview. “The law scandalizes me. The possibility that somebody could be refused service at a hospital or be thrown off a bus [because of a face veil] is scandalous.”

 Bill 62 is presented as a state religious neutrality law and sets out to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests. However, it’s the requirement to uncover one’s face, which effectively targets Muslim women, that has stirred the greatest disagreements.

The law doesn’t identify specific types of garb that would be forbidden, although the Justice Minister suggested it could extend to bandanas and even dark glasses. Still, the fact the rule is contained within a religious neutrality law suggests the legislation is aimed at articles of faith.

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said the legislation targets a religious minority already facing a significant spike in hate crimes in Canada, one still recovering from the mass shooting of six worshippers in a Quebec City mosque this year.

“It allows voices to marginalize and vilify the Muslim community even further,” Mr. Gardee said in an interview from Ottawa. “What it does is serve to further target a tiny minority of the population for political gain.”

He added: “It’s not the business of the state to be in the wardrobes of the nation.”

The government first tabled Bill 62 in 2015. Initially aimed at services at provincial bodies and institutions, it was later amended to extend to municipalities and transit authorities. Its reach would spread to schools, health institutions and daycares.

Premier Philippe Couillard, who faces an election in less than a year, has been under political pressure amid perceptions of being weak on identity issues. He portrayed the new law as being about communications.

“A covered face isn’t only about religion,” he said.

“You speak to me, I speak to you, I see your face, you see mine. It’s part of communications. It’s a question in my mind that is not solely religious, it’s human,” the Premier said in Quebec City.

The law lets someone with a face covering ask for a religious accommodation, but it can be refused for reasons of security, communications or identification. And the law appears to leave the initial decision to grant or deny a service with front-line public employees.

“That’s the nightmare aspect of it,” Robert Leckey, dean of law at McGill University in Montreal, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I have no doubt that a lot of good-faith public servants will feel pressure to deny service.”

He said Quebec was a pioneering jurisdiction decades ago in bringing in equality measures in its own Charter of Rights, and it was “a shame” it was moving forward with Bill 62.

“It feels sad that it’s pioneering now by stigmatizing a religious minority and trying to restrict their sense of being welcomed into public space, the public sphere and getting public services,” Mr. Leckey said.

Mr. Grey said Quebec didn’t provide evidence that veiled women posed a threat that required legislative action.

“This is an example of people trying to solve problems that don’t exist,” Mr. Grey said. “It’s pure theory and doesn’t answer any social problem or address any definable question. It’s only being done because these things are popular.”

In fact, Ms. Vallée has repeatedly invoked the popularity of Bill 62 to defend it. An Angus Reid poll released this month found that an overwhelming 87 per cent of Quebeckers back the legislation, with francophone respondents particularly supportive. The online survey of 609 Quebeckers was conducted last month. A sample of that size carries a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

“It’s a bill of consensus, that rallies the great majority of Quebeckers,” Ms. Vallée said this month. She insists the law respects the Quebec and Canadian charters.

Ms. Vallée’s office said the guidelines on addressing religious accommodations will be phased in by July 1.

There are already signs of confusion and push-back about applying the law. The union representing Montreal bus drivers said on Wednesday it’s not their members’ job to decide who can board a bus.

“We don’t want bus drivers to become referees and have the responsibility of who gets on or doesn’t get on the bus,” said Ronald Boisrond, a spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

While the legislation is said to be about state religious neutrality, the entire debate and vote over the bill unfolded in a legislature where a large crucifix hangs over the Speaker’s chair. Bill 62 specifically protects “elements of Quebec’s cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage,” meaning that the crucifix will be allowed to remain in place.

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