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A woman in a burqa walks in Montreal September 10, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
A woman in a burqa walks in Montreal September 10, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Hearings to begin on proposed Quebec law targeting veiled women Add to ...

Quebec opens another difficult debate over the place of religion and minorities in the province with hearings Tuesday into a proposed law that would ban veiled women from receiving government services.

The parliamentary hearings launch as questions about identity, religion, tolerance and immigration are again roiling the political waters in Quebec.

The new legislation, “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies,” tabled by the Liberals last year, would make it illegal to give or receive government services if a person’s face is covered. Since no Quebec public employees mask their faces, according to the government, the bill would effectively target Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka.

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said when introducing the legislation that it was required “for security, identification and communication purposes.”

She has been unable to say how many women wear face veils in the province.

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Bill 62 is the latest iteration of Quebec’s efforts to impose official secularism in the public domain (though the new legislation would allow the crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly to remain in place).

The bill is seen as a more moderate version of the former Parti Québécois government’s derided “charter of values,” which had set out to ban turbans, kippas, head scarves and other religious displays among Quebec’s civil servants. The bill is believed to have contributed to the PQ’s defeat at the polls in 2014.

The Liberals’ bill would allow for religious accommodations as long as they fit certain sets of guidelines, such as being “consistent” with the equality of men and women.

Still, some groups question the need for the law and say it unfairly targets minority women, who could be excluded from accessing public services.

“How necessary is all of this?” Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said. “How many women might actually be wearing the face veil in Quebec? I doubt that it’s a huge critical mass.” She said that re-opening the issue creates a “malaise.”

“There should really be no suspension of people’s human rights based on popular sentiment toward a religious practice,” Ms. Elghawaby said.

The Liberals under Premier Philippe Couillard, the most diverse party in the legislature, have demonstrated little appetite for tackling identity issues. However, controversies over religious accommodations flare up on a regular basis in Quebec and are quickly seized upon by the opposition PQ and Coalition Avenir Québec. Both say the Liberals’ new bill doesn’t go far enough; they want its prohibition to extend to the chador, but the Liberals counter that the head-to-toe covering leaves the face unconcealed.

The PQ’s newly elected leader, Jean-François Lisée, played heavily on identity during his party’s leadership race, saying he’d consider banning burkas for “security” reasons. After his win this month he said he was ready to “recalibrate” his position, though he made clear on Monday that he does not plan to drop the topic.

“There are 10 European democracies for now – more are being added every month – that are having this debate and offering different solutions,” he said in a radio interview. A ban along the lines of France, where police can stop and fine women in a burka on the street, “is a possibility,” he said.

Political scientist Pierre Martin of the Université de Montréal says the Liberals have moved forward with the largely symbolic Bill 62 to get the issue off the table. “It’s like a piece of gum stuck in their hair,” he said. “It’s a problem they don’t want.”

On the other hand, the Liberals stand to gain by maintaining the issue afloat because it keeps their political rivals fighting one another for advantage on the issue, he added. “It tends to divide the opposition,” Dr. Martin said.

The government invited 71 groups or individuals to appear at the hearings; about 50 agreed. The consultations go until Nov. 9.

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