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Confrontation likely between Quebec and school system over face-veil ban

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie provides further details about how the government's controversial Bill 62 will be implemented at the legislature in Quebec City Tuesday, October 24, 2017. The law bans people from giving or receiving public services if their face is covered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie provides further details about how the government's controversial Bill 62 will be implemented at the legislature in Quebec City Tuesday, October 24, 2017. The law bans people from giving or receiving public services if their face is covered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — The Quebec government appears on a collision course with Montreal universities and junior colleges over Bill 62, which prohibits students from covering their face in class.

Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee sought to dispel confusion Tuesday surrounding the law after saying last week —  to great consternation — that people riding the bus would have to do so for the entire journey with their face uncovered.

The minister backtracked, saying only those whose fare requires a card with photo ID will need to uncover their face before riding public transit — and that they can put the veil back on once they've been identified.

Vallee made it clear, however, that when it comes to the classroom, the veil must come off — and stay off.

"When the student is in the classroom, when they receive training, the uncovered face rule applies," she told reporters in Quebec City. "Because when we are in a situation of learning or training, communication is important."

McGill University spokesman Justin Dupuis said Tuesday the school "has the obligation to accommodate religious differences, and it will continue to do so."

Fatima Ahmad, a 21-year-old student in McGill's education department, wears the niqab and said she's never had a problem with her colleagues or professors.

"For exams I remove it so they can identify me — it's not a problem," she said in an interview after Vallee's most recent comments.

She said as far as she knows she's the only McGill student who wears a niqab, and her school isn't enforcing the law, which was passed last week.

"A lot of professors at McGill are opposed to the law," Ahmad said. "And I've been wearing it since it was banned and I still wear it. And my professors are fine with it."

Vallee's remarks prompted Jean-Marie Lafortune, president of a large teachers' federation, to say that if university professors are forced to play fashion police and expel veiled Muslim women from classrooms it would be a violation of their academic freedom.

"The order has gone out to bring to our attention any case where a professor is threatened with a fine, or disciplined, and we will ensure they are supported," Lafortune said in an interview.

Vallee said despite the new rule being included in a law about "religious neutrality," the face-veil ban was instituted in order to ensure proper communication, identification and security during the exchange of public services.

The law has been panned across the country by federal and provincial politicians, who see it as targeting a small minority of Muslim women — essentially the only citizens who regularly wear face veils in public.

Lafortune, meanwhile, said professors have the freedom to decide whether their classroom or laboratory ensures the proper transmission of knowledge.

Applying Bill 62 should be up to the administration and not professors, he added.

"We will represent our members on a case-by-case basis to ensure professors aren't penalized in order to enforce legislation that appears to us as lowly and electorally motivated," Lafortune said.

He added that only a small number of students in Montreal wear a face veil and he accused the Quebec government of putting together a "heavy and onerous bill to legislate an exceptional phenomenon."

All four major universities in Montreal and seven junior colleges were contacted about their policies regarding veiled students.

The schools said they either allow Muslim women to wear a veil and attend class, don't have a policy on the matter, or are waiting for more guidelines from the government before commenting.

Universite de Montreal spokeswoman Genevieve O'Meara said "at this time, students wearing (face veils) can participate in classes. It's important to understand that this situation concerns a handful of students."

Dawson College, a pre-university junior college in downtown Montreal, also said a student wearing a niqab is allowed to attend classes.

Vallee reiterated Bill 62 will apply everywhere in the province. Some municipal politicians, including Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, are staunchly opposed to the law.

The minister has said the legislation doesn't target any religious group and says most Quebecers agree with the principle behind the bill.

When asked whether her government had obtained legal opinions and is on stable footing for an eventual court challenge, the minister simply responded: "Yes."

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