A group of Montrealers is standing with their faces covered in front of a bus stop to protest the province’s controversial religious neutrality bill.
As one southbound Parc Avenue 80 bus passed Friday morning, the driver covered his face and honked his horn enthusiastically several times to commend them.
“We’re basically standing in solidarity with people whose lives are going to be affected by the ban, who will be unable to access public transit if they wear a niqab,” said Kathryn Jezer-Morton, one of the co-organizers of the protest.
“That’s a really unfair restriction of people’s movements and fundamental rights as Quebecers.”
The group is not boarding any buses to symbolically show how women wearing face coverings would be banned from taking public transport.
They will also not be able to go to a public school or CEGEP.
“I strongly am opposed to Bill 62. It clearly targets a particular group,” said protester Srividya Iyer, who added that it was important for the protest to be a peaceful one.
“As a feminist, I also think that it’s completely reprehensible that we would tell women what to wear.”
A veil of contention
Bill 62 was passed in Quebec’s national assembly Wednesday by a vote of 66-51.
It was tabled by Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée in 2015 and applies primarily to public services.
“In every legislation, there is a risk of it being contested by people who don’t agree with it,” she said.
“It’s a bill that’s respectful of civil rights.”
The bill was first intended for provincial employees, but was extended to include municipal and public transit workers this year.
“There’s no problem here. Women who wear face coverings don’t pose any threat to society and they’re being used, in my opinion, as a political pawn for the Liberals in a really unfair way.”
Some have estimated there are about 50 women who cover their faces with a niqab or burqa in the province.
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“I just find the new law 62 discriminatory and targetting Muslim women and I find that ridiculous,” said protester Benjamin Brunot, who wore a mask in the shape of a black dog’s face.
“I just hope that we stop marginalizing minorities and I think that such a law just promotes hate and intolerance. If we start with Muslim women today, tomorrow it will be another group so let’s just stop it now.”
Opposition parties voted against the hotly debated Bill 62, saying it doesn’t go far enough and should extend to authority figures like judges and police officers.
Uncovering acts of hate
Jezer-Morton insisted there is no evidence of a security threat from women wearing niqabs and pointed out the provincial government should be focusing on other safety issues.
“I think that’s a fake argument. It alienates populations who are already vulnerable, there’s increased harassment,” Jezer-Morton argued, insisting this type of bill goes against Canadian and Quebec values.
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Anyone affected can apply for court-ordered religious accommodation, but it is not yet sure what the criteria will be.
“The law is ridiculous. It’s thinly veiled racism and it’s unenforceable and it’s legally ridiculous,” said protester Elizabeth Robertson, a law student.
Advocacy groups say they will challenge the law in court.
Quebec is the first jurisdiction in North America to ban religious face coverings for public services.