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A 2006 file photo of a woman wearing a niqab in Blackburn, England. Quebec's move to require removal of the veil to receive public services is likely unconstitutional, legal experts say. (PHIL NOBLE/Phil Noble/Reuters)
A 2006 file photo of a woman wearing a niqab in Blackburn, England. Quebec's move to require removal of the veil to receive public services is likely unconstitutional, legal experts say. (PHIL NOBLE/Phil Noble/Reuters)

Quebec's niqab ban sets up a legal showdown Add to ...

Quebec could be heading for a human rights showdown if it proceeds with a proposed law to ban women from wearing face-covering veils on government premises, constitutional experts warn.

"This legislation will probably be considered a breach of human rights," said Lorraine Weinrib, a leading constitutional expert and professor with the University of Toronto's law school.





Denying people health care or other government services is such a draconian result, it seems extreme. Lorraine Weinrib, University of Toronto




Ms. Weinrib said although the province has the legal right to set standards for appearances and conduct on its property, the planned law to ban niqabs puts it at odds with Canada's Charter of Rights. Canada's Charter came into force in 1982 to enshrine a variety of individual rights, such as religious beliefs, minority protections and freedom of speech. Supreme Court rulings on Charter-related lawsuits have produced dozens of landmark rulings on language, gender, religion and privacy rights.

By cutting off access to such services to health care and education to women who are following Muslim dress codes, Ms. Weinrib said Quebec is "discriminating" and "disadvantaging" people on the basis of their religion and gender.

"Denying people health care or other government services is such a draconian result, it seems extreme," she said.

Anyone hoping to challenge a law banning facial coverings in public service settings would likely go through the human-rights commission in Quebec - a process that would be simpler and quicker than slapping the government with a lawsuit.

If the bill becomes law, it may see a string of human-rights or labour complaints because the bill also bars government employees, regardless of whether they have direct contact with the general public, from donning a niqab.

"If there's a lot of serious discussion in Quebec and across the country suggesting that the legislation might be unconstitutional, there could be a request to the Quebec government to the court of appeal to have a reference case," she said. "For that you don't need a real litigant."

The Bountiful, B.C., polygamy case now before the Supreme Court of Canada, is an example of a reference case, examining whether the law violates any part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Robert Leckey, a law professor with McGill University's law school, said he expects the province will face lawsuits if it proceeds with the legislation. "Clearly somebody will challenge this. There are freedom of rights issues and issues about discrimination of religion and gender," he said.

"It will be interesting to see what the lawyers do in framing the challenge to it," said Michael Behiels, university research chair in Canadian federalism and Constitutional studies at the University of Ottawa. "They can basically go fishing in the lower courts and see how this responds and if they're not happy they can then push it up to the appeal court and from there to the Supreme Court."

But for the time being, the Canadian Muslim Forum is not considering legal action, said its president Samer Majzoub. It will first seek clarifications on the bill with the key ministers involved.

Mr. Majzoub's major concern is whether no accommodation would be made, for example, for a woman who arrives at a hospital's emergency room for medical care and refuses to remove her niqab.

"It [would]set a precedent here in Canada and the Western world for the government to get involved directly in imposing dress codes for women," he said.

A woman may be breaking her own religious laws if she is forced to remove her niqab, said Anver Emon, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of law who researches Islamic legal history.

"It doesn't change the fact that maybe from a religious perspective, there's a wrong she suffers. But the only thing that will matter is if there's a consequence to her," he said, such as negative impacts suffered in her Muslim community.

"It puts [the women]in a tight spot and I'm not sure they need to be put in a tight spot."

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