MONTREAL (NEWS 1130) – A controversial Quebec religious neutrality bill that obliges citizens to uncover their faces while giving and receiving state services became law Wednesday.
Members of the national assembly voted 66-51 in favour of the legislation, known as Bill 62.
Tabled by Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee in 2015, it is the governing Liberals’ response to the Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodation more than a decade ago.
It follows up on an election promise in 2014 to address the issue after the Parti Quebecois’ own controversial secularism charter – the so-called charter of values – died after the party was swept out of power.
While the Liberal bill doesn’t specifically mention the garb, it would have the effect of prohibiting the burka and niqab while people interact with the state, but it doesn’t extend to other religious symbols as the PQ’s charter did.
The law will also provide for the possibility of religious accommodation if certain criteria are met.
The main opposition parties, who voted against the bill, have said the Liberals didn’t go far enough, while advocacy groups and academics have said the law could be subject to legal challenge.
But, Vallee says she’s comfortable with the bill, and adds the government has done its homework.
“You know, there’s always –in every piece of legislation– there are risk of it being contested by those who don’t agree with it,” Vallee explains. “We considered that this bill is solid, is strong, it’s a bill that’s respectful of civil rights.”
Meanwhile, Premier Philippe Couillard maintains the legislation goes as far as it could go under the law and federal and provincial charters of rights.
“I think we are at the limit of what our laws and charters would allow in Canada and in Quebec,” he explains. “So people who tell you that we should add more prohibitions are simply not telling the truth. We are already at the limit, the extreme limit and it’s very hard to see how, practically speaking, you could do more.”
He says there are a number of simple reasons for the legislation, like safety. “Public services should be given and received with an open face. We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I can see your face –I should see your face you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”
Vallee has said guidelines on how to apply it would be phased in over a period of several months after consultations.
The face-covering ban initially only involved provincial employees when first introduced, but has since been amended to extend to municipal and public transit.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has previously blasted the law, saying the province doesn’t have the right to tell city workers how they should dress.
Coderre has also raised concerns about municipal employees being forced to deal with tense situations, such as having to decide whether women wearing Islamic face coverings should be able to ride public transit.
A spokesman for the union representing Montreal bus drivers, ticket takers and subway employees says it isn’t interested in enforcing the law.
Ronald Boisrond of the Canadian Union of Public Employees says the union wants proper guidelines.
“Bus drivers don’t want to have the responsibility of applying Bill 62 at this time,” Boisrond said in an interview. “We want the STM (transit authority) to give us clear guidelines about what we are supposed to do when the law is in force.”