An Aspect of Freedom

Sometimes neutrality is anything but. On October 17, 2017, the Quebec Liberal Party government passed into law “an act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.” It forbids persons seeking public services from doing so with faces covered. It also forbids public employees from covering their faces at work, among other things.

Why this law? There is no evidence that anyone working or seeking employment in a provincial or municipal position wants to work with a niqab (covering all but the eyes) or a burka (covering the eyes as well, with a mesh to allow the woman to see out). Ahmed Limame, the imam of the Gatineau mosque, is aware of just one woman in the region who wears a niqab. While there are certainly more in the Montreal region, it is doubtful if there are as many as 100 in the province. As Gatineau mayor Maxime Pednaud-Jobin put it: “We’ve never had a problem with this.” Yet the law is quite popular.

The law, which will paradoxically have a regulation spelling out how to get an exception from the requirement for religious reasons, applies to public transit, library usage, health care, and schools. “To take public transit,” said Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée, “you must have your face uncovered all through the ride.”

Facing a storm of outrage, she backtracked. For example, in the case of the bus ride, if the woman has a special pass with a photo on it (for example, a student pass), she need show her face to only the driver. She will not need to ride with her face uncovered after all. In libraries women will need to uncover in contacts with staff, but not otherwise. In health-care facilities they will now be able to remain covered in the waiting room before contact with the personnel. Students must be uncovered in class, but may be covered in the hallway. “You call those clarifications?” asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau incredulously. It is unclear at this time what, if anything, the federal government will do about this law.

The Quebec government is running scared, with Vallée now contending that the law, in spite of its title, has nothing to do with religion. It would, she urged, apply to sunglasses! Opposition to the law has been swift in coming, denounced by mayors, including Mayor Denis Coderre of Montreal, and the Union of Quebec Municipalities. McGill University promises to ignore it. The Ontario legislature passed a unanimous resolution denouncing it. Alberta’s premier seconded the motion.

What is the reason for the law? Vallée expressed surprise at the reaction, given that the so-called reasonable accommodation issue has been around for 10 years. In fact, the preoccupation goes back well before that. Xenophobia goes back for generations. Institutional and public discrimination against Jews was widespread. During the 1930s and 1940s there was a quota system limiting the admission of Jews to university, and even today the rate of prejudice against Jews is an additional 10 percent in Quebec compared to the general rate in Canada. Anti-Protestant prejudice was confounded with prejudice against English-speakers, as most Protestants are anglophones. And the past attitude toward Jehovah’s Witnesses can be described only as apoplectic.

There are several reasons for this law. One is the need for the Liberals to take the wind out of the sails of the xenophobic appeal of the two major opposition parties. More about them later. Roots of the law can be identified as follows: the influence of the French example, hostility to the Catholic Church, and discomfort with “the other.” We have already alluded to the factor of xenophobia.

In France secular legislation imposes a widespread ban on the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public. Thus, France avoids any conflict with Christians who wear small crosses on pins, necklaces, or earrings. Quebec is choosy in its secularism. It focuses on a tiny minority within a minority. It does not want to deal with Jews wearing yarmulkes or Sikhs wearing turbans, one of whom is now running to become Canada’s prime minister. The argument that the law is about secularism is seriously flawed, even in comparison with the flawed French legislation. Both fail to give adequate weight to individual rights.

The hostility to the Catholic Church in this nominally Catholic province also plays a role. This writer attended an annual meeting of Impératif Français, an organization that militantly promotes the French language and Quebec culture in the province. When those present took part in an open discussion of the Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québécois, a charter close to the French model, there was an outpouring of hostility to the Catholic Church. The hijab, which covers the hair but not the face, reminded people of the old-fashioned nun’s habit. The memory was not pleasant.

Liberals are running scared against the opposition Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec, both of which would go much further than the Liberals. They would ban all religious symbols for those working in the public sphere: at the very least for judges, jail guards, and police. The Parti Québécois would also make it easier for employers to refuse to make religious accommodations for employees. Liberals are well aware of what happened to the social democratic New Democratic Party in the last federal election, which saw its massive beachhead in the province decimated by its principled stand against such discriminatory legislation. While the Liberals may see their law as a way to preempt the march of xenophobia, the French have an aphorism explaining why the opposite is true: The appetite grows with the eating.

So what comes next? Should one of the two main opposition parties come into power, a more forceful law would be inevitable. And should the courts declare such a law to be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government would undoubtedly exercise the constitutional “notwithstanding” clause of the constitution, which allows a province to enact a law even if it is found to violate the constitution. What the Liberals would do is uncertain.

Prime Minister Trudeau fears that, because of the law’s passage, niqab wearers will be harassed. Actually, we can expect such harassment as well for women wearing even the hijab, with face uncovered. One hopes that the law does not encourage some extremist to attack a mosque or some disgruntled young Muslims to head off to join ISIS.

One last consideration on this so-called secular Liberal government. A member of the Quebec National Assembly from the socialist and separatist Québec Solidaire raised the issue of the cross that hangs in the Assembly. The original cross was placed there by the Union Nationale government under Premier Maurice Duplessis in 1936; no secularist he. Needless to say, the concern raised by Québec Solidaire was shunted aside. The cross, it is explained, has nothing to do with religion. It is a cultural and historical reminder.


Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.