News / Canada

Quebec to vote on bill that would bar face-coverings for those receiving public services

The proposed law has been vigorously opposed by Muslim advocacy groups in the province who say that it will unfairly target women who wear Islamic face coverings such as the niqab.

A Montreal woman wears a niqab, a veil which covers the face leaving room for sight.

Torstar News Service Archives

A Montreal woman wears a niqab, a veil which covers the face leaving room for sight.

MONTREAL—After a decade-long debate about the place of religion in a secular society, Quebec is set to pass a law that would bar public servants from wearing face coverings and oblige ordinary citizens to unveil when seeking access to government services.

The proposed law has been vigorously opposed by Muslim advocacy groups in the province who say that it will unfairly target women who wear Islamic face coverings such as the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered.

“A woman with five children who wears the niqab and wants to go to the library won’t be able to take the bus, won’t be able to have access to a place of learning to go with her family, and it will take an official request for her to have a reasonable accommodation,” said Eve Torres, the Quebec representative of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “It makes no sense.”

Debate on the final draft of the bill starts Tuesday and a vote is likely sometime this week.

Quebec’s Liberal government says the legislation strikes a balance between the status quo and the more extreme solution put forward by the previous Parti Quebecois government to legislate a ban on public servants wearing any religious symbols on the job.

The bill specifically exempts any measures that might affect displays of Quebec’s own Catholic heritage, which are considered cultural artifacts and “testify to (the province’s) history.”

Opposition parties say the proposed law won’t do enough to stop religious minorities seeking to put their faith ahead of the common obligations of the state and their responsibilities as citizens. The bill states that a demand for accommodation or exemptions on religious grounds can be refused if they violate fundamental principles like gender equality, pose a security risk or present undue hardship or unreasonable costs to an institution.

There is already great consternation about how and where it will be implemented when it becomes law.

The Quebec government introduced amendments so that the measures apply to school boards, municipalities and even local transit providers.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, reacting to the news this summer, was adamant.

“No government is going to tell us how to dress our employees and deliver our services,” he said, raising the seemingly far-fetched scenario of a woman wearing a niqab being refused entry to a city bus.

That scenario now looks less and less outlandish. Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee has refused to adjudicate hypothetical scenarios, but has spoken of the importance in a society that conversation be unconstrained by clothing.

“I find it hard to see how you can have a dialogue when it’s difficult or impossible to distinguish a person’s non-verbal cues,” she said on Oct. 4.

In the same address to the legislature, she used an example of a Quebec City protest that led to a clash between a right-wing anti-immigration group and their anti-fascist rivals, who wore scarves and dark sunglasses, as an example of the security concerns the law might address.

“The obligation to have your face uncovered is quite simply an obligation with the goal of having social harmony that is completely legitimate.”

None of the explanations quite add up for Quebec Muslims who thought they had found an ally and protector in the Couillard government but are now increasingly prepared to fight on another front—this time in the courts.

“For sure it will be contested,” said Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Quebec Association of Muslims and Arabs for Secularism. “You cannot remove fundamental rights if the reasons are not real and urgent and it’s impossible to explain that the problem we’re trying to solve is either. It’s impossible.”

Bouazzi said he is confident that the law will be proven to be a breach of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as its provincial equivalent. But he worries it could lead in the future to more drastic measures to prevent an individual’s religious expression, or other rights.

“We just opened the door in Quebec to taking away fundamental rights based on nothing. No studies, no security problems whatsoever,” he said.

Critics say that they have yet to hear of a public-service employee at any level who will be affected by the new rules. But Torres pointed to an 2016 Environics survey of 600 people which found that three per cent of Muslim women wear the niqab in public. These are the people likely to suffer the effects of the legislation, she said.

“This position is reinforcing the stigma faced by a minority. Instead of adopting inclusive policies we are excluding people from the public sphere,” Torres said. “In the end it looks like Quebec does not protect its minorities.”

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