Quebec has tabled unprecedented legislation requiring Muslim women to show their faces in all government locations, including schools, hospitals and daycares.
The controversial move by the Charest government - which has said it is committed to secularism and gender equality - marks the first time it has chosen to craft laws to accommodate minorities.
The legislation means the niqab, a full veil covering worn by some Muslim women, will essentially be barred from all government bodies, whether the woman is working for the government or receiving services.
However, public servants can continue to wear religious symbols like a cross or Star of David or even the partial veil known as the hijab worn by Muslim women - just so long as a person's face is in full view.
The bill tabled yesterday in the province's National Assembly said that face coverings of any kind won't be allowed because they disrupt personal interactions, and makes it hard to identify and communicate with people.
"Here in Quebec we receive and we give services with our face uncovered. That's an affirmation that is novel. We believe firmly that we are within the limits of the Charter of Rights," said Justice Minister Kathleen Weil.
"It's a strong, forceful piece of legislation and it's partly because it's so simple."
As critics decried the legislation for hampering religious freedoms, the government defended it, with Premier Jean Charest saying it upholds gender equality and secularism - the values that unite Quebeckers.
"Our solution is Quebec-made and reflects our values and who we are," Mr. Charest said yesterday. "I'm hoping people will look at this very seriously and in some detail and avoid knee-jerk reactions."
Academics argued that turning away a woman in a niqab for shrouding her face has already been taking place in Quebec.
It's interesting that the government hasn't taken the next step by writing it into law, said Lucie Lamarche, a human rights professor with the University of Ottawa.
"What is unique is that it tries to put some constraining principles on reasonable accommodation," she said. "It is answering the political demand for making a legal concept more predictable."
The Muslim community says niqab-wearing women are a tiny minority - there may be as few as 25 who don the full facial veil in Quebec, according to the Muslim Council of Montreal.
Canadian Muslim Forum president Samer Majzoub said the best solution would have been to allow women who so desire to wear the niqab.
"When it comes to the covering of the face we believe that every individual should have the full right to access education and health services. As long as she is paying her taxes she should have the right to have full services," Mr. Majzoub said.
The Quebec Council on the Status of Women applauded the bill as an effort to champion gender equality in public services, but urged the government to re-examine the issue of allowing public servants to wear religious symbols.
"This bill doesn't examine religious symbols. This bill protects gender equality," said the council's president Christiane Pelchat. "One day we may have to take the debate further and bar the wearing of religious symbols by public servants. But the government has gone quite far already."
With Quebec as the exception, other Canadian governments have been more wary of wading into the murky realm of identity issues, a point that might explain the strong reaction to the niqab controversy across the country.
Yesterday's bill was partly motivated by a handful of high-profile cases in which women were denied service unless they showed their faces. The measures support a recent decision by Montreal learning institutions that barred a Muslim woman from French language classes after refusing to accommodate her demand to wear the niqab.
Mr. Charest invited the rest of the country to emulate Quebec's handling of religious minorities and avoid the type of "gross distortions" made recently when a media outlet compared Quebec to the Taliban in Afghanistan for having barred the niqab from language classes.
Similar identity debates are happening in France and England and it's just a matter of time before the rest of Canada catches up, Mr. Charest said.
With reports from the Canadian Press and Sarah BoesveldReport Typo/Error
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