A woman wearing a niqab on Rue Ontario in Montreal in 2012. Photo: Claude Robillard/Flickr

One day in the near future, a woman wearing a face-covering veil will swipe her ticket and walk into a metro station in Montreal. No transit official will stop her. She will not be required to show her ticket to anyone. That’s how the metro system works. It is, largely, automated.

But what will happen to this woman as she walks through the station to the platform? Will she have to endure abuse from self-appointed vigilantes? Will she, perhaps, be subject to violence?

In that same metro station, what will happen to another woman wearing a non-face-covering headscarf, a hijab? Will ruffians and vigilantes make the distinction between headwear that is legal and permitted and that which is not? Will they even care?

When Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard came to power in 2014, he promised, quite solemnly, that his would be a government for all Quebeckers. During the campaign, the Liberal leader had eloquently and firmly rejected the Parti Québecois’ (PQ) ill-conceived Charter of Quebec Values. That proposed legislation stipulated, among its many provisions, that a person who dressed in the manner of, say, Jagmeet Singh, could not work as a teacher or police officer anywhere in Quebec.

A good many Quebeckers, and almost as many Canadians outside of Quebec, breathed a sigh of relief when the 2014 election results showed a bruising defeat for Pauline Marois’ PQ. They welcomed Couillard’s promise that his government would focus on real challenges, not traffic in solutions to problems that do not exist.

They thought Couillard’s election spelled the end of sterile rhetorical battles over the symbolic elements of identity. Phew!

Political calculations and human rights

Earlier this week, Premier Couillard proved that the proverbial leopard can change its spots when his government passed Bill (now Law) 62. In certain key aspects, Law 62 is even more draconian than the Parti Québecois’ Charter. This new law bans anyone who wears a face-covering veil from seeking any kind of provincial or municipal service. That includes colleges and universities, and public transit.

What motivated Couillard to take this step is something of a mystery.  There will be an election in Quebec next year, and Couillard’s Liberals have seen their support drop among francophones, mostly to the benefit of the right-of-centre nationalist party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (the CAQ). With this new measure on face coverings, Couillard may hope to head off any accusations that he has done too little to protect Quebec’s identity, especially its secular identity.

Law 62 will only have a direct impact on the tiny handful of women who wear burkas or niqabs or other similar face coverings. They are very few in all of Quebec, not even 200. And so, Couillard might reason, his new law is almost entirely symbolic. It is a low-cost and low effort way to shore up political support on his weak flank.

However, while Law 62 will apply to a tiny minority of people, it sends a much more consequential and chilling message, namely, that fundamental rights do not count. President Donald Trump’s over-heated rhetoric has encouraged hate mongers of various kinds in the U.S. We have a right to fear that Couillard’s notionally small-bore measure in Quebec will do the same. It is a first step down a slope that is not only slippery; it is treacherous.

Just days after the law passed, CBC News reported the story of a woman in a niqab who was denied service in a Montreal convenience store. Law 62 does not apply to the retail sector. But this is the sort of abuse that happens when the government itself openly engages in discriminatory practices. It is called giving permission to bigotry and intolerance.

There has been some fairly virulent editorial reaction to this measure, at least in the English media. In Montreal, some bus drivers wore face coverings in protest, as did some transit users. And a few politicians, such as all the parties in the Ontario legislature, have condemned Law 62. But political reaction has been, to a large extent, muted. Politicians who seek support in Quebec are no doubt aware that opinion polls in that province show massive popular support for Couillard’s new measures.

On the federal scene, the strongest opposition has come from Singh. The NDP leader told a number of interviewers, both in English and French, that he entirely disagrees with Law 62. It is counter to both the federal Charter of Rights and Quebec’s own Charter, he says. In keeping with a pledge he made just after winning the leadership, Singh does add the nuance that he respects the Quebec government’s right to do what it is doing. But he qualifies that respect by expressing the hope that the courts will deal with this matter, and soon.

Prime Minister Trudeau took a couple of days to react, and has been more guarded than Singh. When he first commented, the federal Liberal leader was campaigning in Quebec’s Lac-Saint-Jean riding, where there will be a by-election the Liberals hope to win on Oct. 23. He talked rather evasively about the need to have discussion and dialogue, without seeming to notice that we are dealing with a law that has been passed. For the Quebec government, at any rate, the time for discussion has come and gone.

Without condemning Law 62 outright, Trudeau said he and his party have enormous respect for the Canadian Charter of Rights. He then added, pointedly, that the Charter applies to all of Canada. But that was as far as the prime minister would go on the eve of a by-election in the Quebec heartland. Most noteworthy was Trudeau’s unqualified assertion that it is not up to the federal government to mount a court challenge to the new law.

Québec Solidaire opposes the face-covering ban, but wants other measures

The two main opposition parties in Quebec, the PQ and the CAQ, voted against Law 62 — but, mostly, because it did not go far enough.  They want something closer to the PQ’s aborted Charter, a law that will regulate and limit the use not only of face-covering veils but also of a much broader range of visible religious accoutrements. 

Left-of-centre Quebec Solidaire (QS), which has three members in Quebec’s National Assembly, says it voted against Couillard’s new law because it did not go far enough in some respects, while going too far in others.

“This measure is too timid in affirming the secular nature of Quebec state,” QS co-leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told reporters, expressing regret that debates on the secular question have focused excessively on people’s clothing and insufficiently on the secular character of Quebec’s institutions. Here, Nadeau-Dubois referred to the fact that there is still a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly. QS says that is a cross Quebec should not have to bear and wants it removed.

Nadeau-Dubois’s party does echo other Quebec parties in advocating for regulation of certain kinds of outward religious expression for certain people. It cites the Bouchard-Taylor Commission recommendation, for instance, that the law should not allow public officials in “coercive” roles, such as police officers and judges, to wear outward signs of religious faith, including turbans, kippahs and crosses.

It was the previous Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest that set up the Commission headed by sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, in 2007. Taylor has since said he no longer agrees with some of the Commission’s recommendations, most specifically the one Québec Solidaire is now promoting.

As for Law 62’s requirement that people seeking government services must do so with their faces exposed, Nadeau-Dubois scoffed that the idea is unworkable and almost ridiculous.

The new law, Nadeau-Dubois said, “would mean a veiled woman could take a taxi but not a bus. She could go to a bookstore but not a library, because the first is private and the second public. That same person could take a (private) cruise, but not a (public) ferry …”

It is worth noting that Nadeau-Dubois laid great emphasis on the absurdity and impracticality of Law 62, not on the fact that it violates human rights.

It seems that even the party that most fervently proclaims its dedication to social justice is reluctant to call a spade a spade and say what is at stake here is not a mere matter of pragmatic contingencies. It is a question of basic rights.

Wanted: Courage to speak out clearly

The day after Dubois-Nadeau spoke, his National Assembly colleague Manon Massé commented on Law 62. Although she started out, like Nadeau-Dubois, by referring to the new law’s absurdity (“It does not make sense,” she said) she could not help herself and, almost unintentionally, crossed over into the territory of rights.

This more fulsome condemnation of Law 62 came when Massé was commenting on the subject of public transit. She first explained to reporters that, in certain cases, such as verifying the identity of a person holding a seniors’ fare card, authorities could do so privately, with full respect for the person’s religious convictions.

Then she went further. The bottom line, the former activist and current National Assembly member said, is that “public services are just that, public. They are for all members of the public, without exception.”

It does not take much courage for those of us outside Quebec to point the finger at yet another example of that province’s notional xenophobia and intolerance. This writer, for one, is wary of walking down that holier-than-thou path.

There are at least some folks in Quebec, however, who believe Law 62 tramples on fundamental rights. Some have taken to the streets wearing face coverings in protest. Right now, however, many in leadership roles seem to be having trouble saying so, clearly and unequivocally. We can only hope they find their voices and their courage, and soon. 

Photo: Claude Robillard/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...