OTTAWA — The Quebec government expected broad public support when it passed a law last week banning women from wearing Islamic face coverings when they provide or receive public services. Instead, the new law has prompted protests, confusion and ridicule.
The legislation, which has yet to come into force, will require a woman to remove a face-hiding veil when boarding a bus, borrowing a book from the library or picking up a child at day care.
The law, passed by Quebec’s National Assembly, is aimed at protecting the “religious neutrality of the state” yet the provincial government insists it does not discriminate against Muslim women. It claims the law will ensure members of the public can be easily identified; it will also ban anybody from wearing a bandanna and sunglasses from getting on a bus, for example.
“We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face,” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said. “We are a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims immediately attacked the legislation as discriminatory and in clear violation of the religious freedom protections in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The Quebec government is advancing a dangerous political agenda on the backs of minorities, while pandering to bigoted populism instead of practicing principled governance,” the group said in a statement.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he didn’t think “it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing” and vowed to stand up for the Canadian Charter of Rights. But he was careful not to harshly criticize the law, worried about upsetting voters in Quebec, where his popularity remains high and the niqab ban has broad support.
Julius Grey, a Montreal human rights lawyer, said the law is poorly drafted and is a violation of the Charter of Rights, noting that it probably affects no more than 30 or 40 women in the province. What Couillard's Liberal government is doing is “simply to get votes from the nationalist parties” that want even greater restrictions on religious symbols, he said.
The law has also been condemned by the premiers of Ontario and Alberta and by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who said it stigmatizes women and would place bus drivers in an impossible situation as enforcers of the law. Last week, protesters took to the streets of Montreal sporting surgical masks, scarves and hockey masks to protest the law.
Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee held a news conference Tuesday that seemed to add to the confusion. She said Tuesday that the law will only force a woman to remove her veil on a bus if she has a bus pass with a photo ID. Once on the bus, she can put her veil back on. Last week, Vallee said a woman would have to have her face exposed for the whole journey.
Asked by a journalist to explain whether there would be sanctions for flouting the law, Vallee said, “If you don’t get on, you won’t get kicked off.”
A veiled woman would be able to visit a library, roam the stacks and read a volume, but would have to remove her niqab if she wanted to borrow a book. But women also would be able to apply for an exemption on religious ground and avoid penalties.
The ban on face veils is the latest in a roiling controversy over the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities in the primarily French-speaking province that has gone on for a decade. It has led to municipal regulations in a Montreal suburb restricting Hasidic Jews from building new synagogues and a ban on the wearing of the kirpan, a ceremonial Sikh dagger, in the National Assembly.
But it is fear of Muslims that has attracted the most attention. Quebec was once a bastion of strict Roman Catholicism, but since the 1960s, the population has become increasingly secular and fearful of a growing Muslim immigration, many from French-speaking North Africa. But still, very few women wear full-face veils.
While fear of Muslims is high, the most serious terrorist incident to hit the province in recent years occurred in January, when a shooter killed six worshipers at a mosque in Quebec City. A young French Canadian known for his far-right views is now facing murder charges.
The anti-niqab law was passed by the Liberal majority in the Assembly, with the opposition voting against, largely because they feel the law doesn’t go far enough. One opposition member called the new law “a comedy act.” The opposition wants the government to ban anybody wearing an “ostentatious” religious symbol, including a kippa, a turban or a chador from holding any position of authority, including a teacher or police officer.
Earlier this month, an opinion survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 62 percent of Quebec respondents strongly approved of the legislation.