On October 17, the Liberal government of Quebec passed Bill 62, titled “an Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality.” The bill received a staggering 66 votes in favour and 51 against. The bill mandates how employees of “public bodies” – that is, government employees – and those receiving public services should dress, specifically requiring people giving or receiving public services to uncover their faces. The Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec were the two major opposition parties who voted against it, stating that the bill did not go far enough to ensure religious neutrality. Most observers agree that the law appears to target minority Muslim women who wear the face veil, a tiny fraction of the wider Muslim community. Critics argue that Bill 62 is unconstitutional as it violates the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and specifically infringes upon the religious freedoms of Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab.
At present, the legislation does not list any sanctions for non-compliance. These uncertainties lead to an important question: will this law require public servants to discriminate against Muslim women under the cloak of religious neutrality? The bill indicates flexibility for religious exemption on a case-by-case basis, for which guidelines will be made available in June 2018.
Policing women’s bodies: Ongoing and widespread
This is not the first time such a policy has been proposed in Quebec. In 2010, then Quebec Premier Jean Charest introduced similar legislation, Bill 94, banning face veils. The Liberal government was defeated in the 2012 election before the bill passed into law. Then, in 2013, the Parti Quebecois proposed Bill 60, the Quebec Charter of Values, to prohibit wearing or displaying “conspicuous” religious symbols in the public sphere. Bill 62 was tabled 2 years ago in 2015 by the Liberals, after the Parti Québécois was defeated in the 2014 election.
This debate is not exclusive to Quebec, either. In 2014, a member of the Australian senate attempted to ban the wearing of a burqa in the Parliament, arguing that it was necessary for identification purposes to eliminate security threats. Due to immediate backlash this was never implemented, but conversations about a burqa ban are ongoing. Earlier this year, Pauline Hanson, the founder and leader of a right-wing party, wore a burqa in Parliament only to remove it as a stunt to push for a ban. The prime minister condemned the politician for her actions and insisted that the country would not put a ban on the burqa.
The debate about banning the burqa or niqab has led to the politicization of the identity of some Muslim women based on false assumptions about religion and culture. Claims that the niqab is un-Islamic and not a tradition of the religion have provided further ammunition for supporters of the ban, who assume that the niqab is oppressive and anti-feminist. These assumptions have been used to speak on behalf of Muslim women to create a law that effectively suppresses this minority group from exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms. Moreover, Muslim women who wear a burqa or niqab have been scrutinized rather than being identified as the victims of institutional racism in a system that prevents them from feeling a sense of belonging and having equitable access to justice and employment opportunities.
Politics of Fear Disguised as Religious Neutrality
The Quebec government has made several arguments in favour of Bill 62. Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée has said that the ban is about living “together in harmony” to establish the “neutrality of the state” and that the law is necessary for “communication reasons, identification reasons and security reasons.” Rather than promoting harmony, the ban disempowers women, dismisses the way religion continues to influence policy, and provides further fuel for racism and xenophobia.
Not only does this law ignore the voices of women who wear the niqab but it will also further isolate and exclude those it targets. “I don’t have a car, I don’t have anybody to drive me around, so it will just block me from the rest of the world,” said a 21-year-old Muslim woman in Montreal who wears a niqab. When France banned the burqa, it effectively removed public access for those women who had no choice but to stay home. Laws like Bill 62 only exasperate the problem of excluding women from the broader society by isolating and alienating them.
Bill 62 claims to promote religious neutrality, but this raises the question of whether church ever has been, or will be, separate from the state. Cultural and religious values and beliefs influence people’s positions on political issues. In a government that has been predominantly white since its inception, it is inevitable that some political decisions would reflect the religious faiths of individuals in power. The Christian cross that hangs in Quebec’s National Assembly is often used as an example of the ways in which the government is not as secular as it claims to be.
The new law also risks fueling the rising xenophobia, discrimination and violence against minorities that is already an issue in Canada. In only one year, the number of hate crimes reported in Quebec City increased by over 200% from 25 in 2015 to 58 in 2016. These numbers are likely understated as they do not account for the presumably large number of unreported hate crimes. A mass shooting killed 6 Muslims and wounded 19 others at the Centre culturel islamique de Quebec on January 29, 2017. Months after the deadly shooting, the car belonging to Mohamed Labidi, president of the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, was set on fire.
How will Bill 62 further dissuade Muslim women from reporting hate crimes when the state that they are living in is becoming increasingly hostile and Islamophobic? How will this affect the lives of Muslims who seek to live in a safe place just as much as their follow Canadians do?
Canada has certainly fallen short in building the multicultural mosaic it claims to be, but creating xenophobic, discriminatory legislation and policies is unacceptable. As of November 7, this law has been challenged on constitutional grounds in the Quebec Superior Court.
Talha completed his Honours Bachelor of Arts specializing in International Development and majoring in Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto. Before coming to SPPG, he worked at the United Nations World Food Programme. He is currently working at the Danish Trade Council as a Junior Advisor. His policy and research interests include health, environment, immigration and international development.
Harpreet Sahota is a second year MPP candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Administrative Studies with Specialized Honours in Management from York University. She is passionate about social policy and her interests include diversity and anti-racism, equity and mental health awareness. When she is not in the library, she enjoys being outdoors or eating a plethora of bananas. She is currently on exchange in Berlin studying at the Hertie School of Governance.