A Muslim woman riding the Montreal Métro. Image courtesy of Canadian Press and the CBC.
On October 18th, 2017, the Quebec National Assembly voted in favor of Bill 62. The measure is a long document about the need for Quebec to assert what it calls “State religious neutrality.” However, critics and concerned citizens have keyed in on the bill’s call for a ban on the wearing of head coverings for a religious purpose. The ban includes mandatory ‘unveiling’ in various public places where people receive government service, like on the bus, in libraries and at public hospitals.
The law is directly targeted at Muslim women in the province who wear the burqa or niqab, and harkens to the policy within France, whose policies are modeled by French-speaking Quebec. Quebec is acting in a discriminatory way that is mandated by laïcité, or the French brand of militant secularism. The provincial government must back off from this ruling if it is to be respected on the national, and indeed international, stage as an inclusive and forward-thinking province that respects all peoples no matter their background or religion.
The aforementioned laïcité is a truly untranslatable term which refers to the particular brand of French secularism. This secularism asserts not a separation between church and state, but for a neutral and religion-less state.
This tradition is part of French republicanism, values codified following the French Revolution in the nation. Laïcité, when taken extremely seriously, forces all those interacting directly with the state to remove religious signs and symbols that dominate their positionally as a political citizen. Quebec, with Bill 62, is directly copying France’s law in 2004 which bans all “conspicuous signs of religion,” especially the niqab. The Canadian Charter of Rights does have “freedom of conscience and religion.” However, a more militant stance is taken by the French-inspired Quebecois politicians on this issue, as required the state to be neutral, not accepting, of all religions.
This is obvious in Bill 62, as the total banning of face coverings does this. This headscarf is a representation, for those who wrote this bill, of the threat of global Islam and the oppression women face in the Muslim world, and in Muslim households in Quebec. The bill phrases a lack of religion in the state as “State religious neutrality.” This ruling is not neutral; the Quebec National Assembly is targeting and discriminating against Muslim women who live in the province and wear the niqab.
Allegedly, the bill is not targeted at just one group, but instead, “a legitimate question of communication, identification and security.” It exempts those that use a face or head covering for their occupation, like as a surgical mask. It does not consider the divide between religion and state as a vague concept, but sees the state as fully represented in all institutions it funds. The ruling forces one’s niqab to be removed off when, say, entering onto a public bus or Montreal’s Métro, and originally, it was meant to be kept off the entire time the service is used.
This original stance has been relaxed, as politicians said the niqab or burqa could be wore on board but not while interacting with the driver or other staff, to, for instances, show an identity photo. There is also no way for government workers to enforce the law, and a lack of guidelines for what counts as a head covering under the Bill. This context makes it clear it is just a discriminatory act. The backing down from the originally stringent ruling that the niqab or burqa was to never be wore in public realms but only when interacting with government staff reveals how absurd the ruling is as well.
A nearly identical ruling to Bill 62 and those on the books in France was passed in Austria in 2017 as well. The Austrian law also include the condition that face coverings in public places are only allowed if necessary for one’s occupation. The law has led to an administrative nightmare: the way the bill is written forces all who are wearing head coverings in public to face the police and fines. As the police are taking the new law on its exact wording, people wearing scarves to shield their face from the Austrian winter are being fined. The law was also part of an ‘integration package’ presented to the Austrian Parliament as measures to help immigrants assimilate into Austrian culture. This is a shocking contradiction, as such a ‘burqa ban’ discriminates against this group and forces the police to investigate every Austrian wearing anything that obstructs their face, be it a niqab or a scarf to protect themselves from the cold.
There have been mass protests against the ruling in Quebec and across Canada. Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau has publicly come out against the ruling: “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing.” This more feminist view ignores the discriminatory nature of the bill. Trudeau has, also, not said if the federal government will take action against the bill. He has also made it clear the tempering of how strictly the bill will be enforced by Quebec officials is not good enough for him. “You call those clarifications?” was his taut response to a question concerning them. Ottawa and its head of government clearly disagree on principle with this ruling and oppose Montreal’s interpretation of the separation between church and state.
However, Quebec has the political right to opt-out of what in the Canadian Charter is “freedom of conscience and religion” by using what is called the “not-withstanding” clause in said Constitution. Indeed, this was Quebec’s argument over its use of only French on commercial signs in stores throughout the province, as it ruled for this as part of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in 1977. This ruling, however, was struck down by the national government as unconstitutional, and English and French signs co-exist in the province. If it comes to it, this precedent of this ruling by the national government should be utilized to strike down Bill 62. Nothing about this legal battle has yet been discussed in the public eye, but Trudeau may very well be planning a push to oppose this ruling more legally.
The politicians have claimed the bill simply asserts the Quebec provincial government’s view that they are to be totally neutral when it comes to religion. They have said the bill is not repressive or discriminatory; however, they made these statements and backed down only after Trudeau’s comments and massive public backlash. Bill 62 should be repealed in Quebec and replaced with a bill that does assert “State religious neutrality” in a less racist and discriminatory matter. Quebec’s government is not forced the same view on laïcité as their French influencers, and can have a clear stance that is religiously neutral that does not target Muslim women and others who wear conspicuous signs of their religion out of devotion to their faith.