News compilation on New Cold War.org, Oct 19, 2017
Enclosed are articles and commentaries on Quebec’s Bill 62, approved by a majority of the Quebec National Assembly on October 17, 2017. The law was proposed by the Liberal Party government. Voting against the law were the two right-wing parties in the National Assembly, saying it was not harsh enough, and the left-wing Québec solidaire party. The latter agrees, in principle, with the need for a law to regulate ‘secularism’ in government services but says the government has failed to address social and human rights discrimination against national and religious minorities.
Quebec bans face covering in public services, raising worries among Muslims
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.
Quebec’s niqab ban: Muslim women are an easy political target
As a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair but not her face, I am not personally affected by Quebec’s new law banning face coverings while receiving public services such as taking a city bus. It would be easy for me to ignore the law’s broader meaning. Saying nothing would, in fact, make me more palatable to some Canadians, who draw the line of religious freedom at face coverings. Instead, it has stirred and jolted me out of complacency. We must speak out against this so-called religious neutrality, and see Bill 62 for what it really is: politicizing and fear mongering toward an easy target.
I have been writing about Islamophobia for years, including misguided hatred and fear of the veil. I write about this not out of personal attachment to the garment, but out of a sense of broader outrage, born from my love of democracy, freedom, and justice.
That this is even considered a public issue at all is remarkable, given that I have only ever met two niqabis – neither of whom represented any danger to society at large. The first, whom I met in my childhood, had a bubbly sense of humour, spoke Chinese, and was the kind of person who was both humble yet extremely intelligent. She was the type that might casually drop a comment about teaching herself ancient Sanskrit with a dictionary over the summer. The other veiled woman I currently know via social media tweets pithy and hilarious commentary about her life as a niqabi steampunk goth, with a distinctly feminist bent.
These women should not be political targets. That Quebec has framed these women as such outrages me. But what is next? Will I let this momentary outrage subside, as it dawns on me that perhaps the religious accommodation issue in Quebec would be put to bed by this bill? Will I tacitly condone, through inaction, the sacrifice of the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms and rights of my fellow Muslim Canadians who choose to veil their faces, knowing that their exclusion from society might ensure my inclusion? Will I do these things, knowing that making these concessions might make me palatable to Quebec society?
I already feel twisted into Cirque du Soleil-like contortions in my efforts to be the model minority, worthy of the rights guaranteed to all. I was the valedictorian of my graduating high school class; I am bilingual; I volunteer my time in my community. And yet, I am the perennial Other, the Unknown, rising to play my role during each election cycle, like the villain in a Saturday morning cartoon.
Muslim women in Canada are cast as the blackest of political demons, the most frightening of ghosts. Willful ignorance of my personal story and the personal stories of my fellow Canadian Muslim women allows for politically expedient narratives that chill the blood and quicken the pulse.
It is far more compelling to imagine that Muslim women represent a danger to society than to learn about the reality of my penchant for Tim Hortons’ pecan butter tarts, my stints as a lifeguard and a Parliament Hill tour guide, and my belief, as a native Winnipegger, that the intersection of Portage and Main really isn’t that cold.
This bill supposedly ensures the religious neutrality of the state. What is so laughably obvious is that it targets one demographic specifically: Muslim Canadians. There are no mentions in the bill of ceremonial daggers or balcony sukkots. Pulling on the skein of religious neutrality, one unravels a long history of religious accommodation in Quebec and Canada. The founding social contract of Canada was one of religious accommodation. There would be no nation without the resolution of the Manitoba schools crisis, meeting the demands of French Canadians, throughout the land, to be educated in their religion of choice.
Current efforts involving religious accommodation, unlike what historical revisionists would have us believe, are not the imposition of recent immigrants on a timeless bastion of rationality, modernity and secularism. They are the continuation of a long and deep history of the concessions we all make to live together harmoniously and build something greater than the sum of our parts.
Niqabi women, frequently discussed yet seldom consulted, play an outsized role in our political discourse and will now play a lesser role in our body politic. Freedom of conscience is perhaps the only sacred thing within a secular state – the freedom to be an atheist or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Christian. A free society should honour the life, choices, and dignity of all of its members. A bill that could lead to the denial of government services on the basis of religion does not conform to this ideal.
Idil Issa is a board member of Paroles de Femmes and a freelance writer based in Montreal.
With Bill 62, Quebec attacks religious freedom, editorial, Globe and Mail, Oct 18, 2017
Quebec and its niqab legislation needs to stay out of women’s closets, op-ed commentary by Shree Paradkar, Toronto Star, Oct 17, 2017
What Europe should learn from Turkey’s headscarf fight, by Nil Köksal, CBC News, March 15, 2017
Does Quebec need a ‘charter of secularism’?, by Québec solidaire member Benoit Renaud, June 13, 2013
Muslim women respond to Quebec’s Bill 62, interviews with three women of Muslim faith from Quebec, on CBC Radio One‘s ‘The Current’, Oct 20, 2017