Residents in Quebec are no longer allowed to cover their face while working in the public sector or receiving government services, like getting on a bus or taking a book out of the library.
The controversial law, known as Bill 62, obliges citizens to uncover their faces while giving and receiving public services in Quebec.
Bill 62 is called the “religious neutrality law” and does not specifically mention niqabs or burqas. Instead, it’s described as imposing a duty of religious neutrality on public servants and people using government services.
Details about how the law will be enforced haven’t been worked out yet, but it’s left many critics concerned about how it unfairly targets Muslim women.
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Who it impacts?
The legislation mainly affects Muslim women who wear niqabs or burqas, Daniel Salée, a political science professor at Concordia University said.
“It will impact those who cover their face,” he said. “And who wears face covers? Muslim women.”
A niqab covers the woman’s face except for the area around the eyes. A burqa covers the entire face and has a mesh over the eyes.
This means public professionals like doctors and teachers cannot wear niqabs, burkas or any other face coverings. And if you are taking a city bus, your face must also be uncovered.
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Salée said not only is it affecting a minority group, the legislation is also going to impact civil servants who are forced to carry out the law.
“The union representing civil servants have already said they are unhappy about this bill,” he said. “They are forced to make decisions without any guidelines.”
How it works?
Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée, who passed the bill Wednesday, said the new law is based on reasons of identification, communication and security. She said it’s not an attack on Muslim women.
“It’s a bill that is inclusive, that respects individual choices,” she told reporters.
The legislation does not outline any specific garment, and Vallée said the ban on face coverings includes sunglasses as well.
“Of course the law does not say it’s an attack on a religion,” Salée said. “But in its implementation, that is what it boils down to.”
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The law also allows Muslim women to apply for a religious accommodation exception when receiving a public service.
The opposition Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) said this makes the entire law moot. “Why make a rule when you can say ‘but you can ask for an accommodation?'” Nathalie Roy, CAQ secularism critic said.
The new law is not an outright ban on religious symbols as city workers can still wear crucifixes, which is also allowed to remain on display behind the speaker’s chair at the National Assembly of Quebec.
When does the law kick in?
Bill 62 is now in effect. However, Quebec’s Liberal government said guidelines on how to apply the law will be phased in over the next several months after consultations. It could be as late as July 2018.
In the meantime, the province is left without a detailed framework or guideline how the law will be applied and enforced.
Although Quebec is the first jurisdiction in North America to ban religious face coverings for public services, many other nations in Europe like Belgium, France and Switzerland have outlawed it for years.
In France, women can even be fined for wearing a face veil in public.
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What critics are saying
The legislation is being criticized by Muslim organizations, civil-rights groups and the mayor of Montreal, who say all it does is stigmatize Muslim women.
Samaa Elibyari, with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said not only is the bill offensive, it’s also not efficient.
“How is this going to make Quebec a better society? How is it making Quebec a neutral society? I don’t see how it has any value,” Elibyari said.
After the law was passed, Ontario’s Liberal government said it runs contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and will lead to legal challenges. Ontario’s attorney general said the government must respect a person’s right to express themselves and their religion.
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Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the federal NDP also spoke out against the law. “I am completely opposed to it. But I am completely confident in the existing protections that are in place in Quebec that will protect human rights,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said although he does not agree women should be forced to unveil their face, he said it’s not up to the federal government to challenge the issue.
What supporters are saying
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard defended the legislation saying a vast Quebecers — and Canadians — would agree that public services should be given and received with an open face.
“I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that,” he said.
Andre Lamoureux, political scientist and spokesman for a Quebec-based movement for secularism, said the niqab or burqu “has no place — not even on the bus.”
His group was one of many who testified during the legislative hearings into Bill 62.
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“(The niqab) is not a religious sign,” Lamoureux said. “It’s a political symbol of the enslavement and de-empowerment of women that is supported by the most repressive regimes on the planet.”
The two opposition parties in the province, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec, said the law still does not go far enough.
Will there be pushback?
Salée said the law is likely to be subject to a legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
“It’s unacceptable to target a group; to say one religious group is problematic,” he said. “It’s a form of Islamophobia and the bill is just pussyfooting around it.”
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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also believes there will be a legal challenge, saying the bill seems to violate many human rights protections.
Fo Niemi of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations said the law could eventually be challenged in front of the United Nations.
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“It is foreseeable…the law will end up before the UN because it can be deemed to be a violation of certain rights protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” Niemi said.
How did we get here?
The Liberal government first tabled Bill 62 in 2015. It initially only involved provincial employees but has since been amended to include municipal and public transit.
The legislation is still not as strict as the values charter proposed by the Parti Quebecois in 2013. The charter would have forbade public employees from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols and headgear, including Muslim face veils, Jewish yarmulkes and large crucifixes.
This did not become law as the Liberals won the 2014 election.
— With files from the Canadian Press