As Quebec’s justice minister prepares to announce details Tuesday on how the government plans to apply its controversial new “Religious Neutrality” law, critics are saying the law is discriminatory and designed to appease voters from regions outside Montreal where it would rarely have to be applied.
The law, also known as Bill 62, states that in order to give or receive a public services — which would services such as public transit, health care, educational and daycare services — a person must have an uncovered face. Exceptions can be made, the law says, but not if having one’s face covered compromises security or interferes with necessary identification or communication.
Critics have said the law is designed to appease anti-Muslim sentiment, that it will discriminate unfairly against a tiny number of women who live mainly in the Greater Montreal region, who wear the niqab or burka.
Yasmin Jiwani, a professor in Concordia University’s Communications Studies department whose research focuses on representations of Muslim women in western media, accuses the Liberal government of pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment outside Montreal, with no regard for how this law could affect Muslim women.
“It becomes one more way in which women’s bodies are used as a political ploy, to appease the right wingers, to say the state is doing something and to communicate the message to Muslim women that they should not be dressing this way.”
She finds it striking that a law that is supposed to be about secularism makes explicit exceptions for symbols of Christianity, such as the cross in Quebec’s legislature. (The law specifies that the measures it introduces “must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic or toponymic elements of Quebec’s cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history.”)
“The Taliban constrained women, and told them how to dress, when they would be allowed out and under what conditions,” said Jiwani. “Now the so-called secular state, that makes these pronouncements under a cross, does the same thing.”
Jack Jedwab, president of the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, notes that according to the 2011 Census, less than one per cent of the population living outside of Greater Montreal identify as non-Christian. He estimated, according to census and other reports, that there are perhaps 50 women in all of Quebec who wear the niqab or burka, and they would virtually all live in the Montreal area.
He said the Liberal government is trying to win votes outside of Montreal where the law has support, while ignoring the concerns of those in Montreal, where the law would have to be applied.
“The agenda on these issues is being driven by people outside of Montreal who don’t have any meaningful interaction with these issues. … No one in a niqab is going to ride a bus in Rivière-du-Loup.”
Montreal incumbent mayor Denis Coderre has said the law puts municipal workers in an untenable position. His main opponent Valérie Plante has also said the law threatens to deprive Montrealers of services to which they have a right, and it should be reworked.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Coderre said he has no issue with a law telling public service workers that their faces must be visible when offering service.
“By the way, no woman (who works for the city of Montreal) wears the niqab. The fact of receiving services is the problem. It is a problem of application; it puts undue pressure on all those who give services. They would have to become the niqab or burka police. I think that it will not pass the test of the courts.”
Indeed, several groups, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund have indicated they are considering challenging the law in court.
And even some government ministers seem unclear, still, about how the law is to be applied.
Asked whether a patient who wears a niqab might be denied health care in the ER, Barrette responded: “In our network, patients needing care at the emergency room will have care provided to them.”
Pressed on whether the government can now categorically ensure this right for Muslim women wearing such garments in the health system, Barrette replied: “I can say categorically that I will wait until Minister Vallée’s announcement.”
Aaron Derfel contributed to this report.