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Politics Ottawa unlikely to send Quebec's face-covering law to top court

Legal experts say it would be easier to gauge the impact of Bill 62 on individuals through a court challenge that is set to be heard by the Quebec Superior Court, where Muslim women will be appearing as witnesses.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ottawa is unlikely to pre-emptively refer Quebec's controversial face-covering law to the Supreme Court, where little evidence could be presented on Bill 62's actual impact on individual Muslim women, federal officials said.

Senior government sources said all options are still on the table, but that Ottawa is likelier to intervene in a coming court challenge than refer the matter to the Supreme Court for an immediate ruling on the law's constitutionality.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised both of these options over the weekend as he continued to denounce the law that calls on Quebeckers to show their face when giving or receiving services in places such as libraries, university classrooms, daycares and on buses. Critics of the legislation have denounced the fact it affects Muslim women who cover their faces, with Mr. Trudeau stating governments shouldn't tell women what to wear.

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Read more: 'It's going to encourage more hate': Women in Quebec who wear niqab speak out against Bill 62

Read more: How will Quebec's Bill 62 work? What we know (and don't) so far

The quickest way to have a formal ruling on the constitutionality of the law would be to refer the matter directly to the Supreme Court. Still, federal officials and experts said a Supreme Court reference would feature more of a theoretical debate among lawyers on the constitutionality of Bill 62 than an actual exploration of the law's effect on citizens.

"It's difficult to get to the bottom of a question by looking at it in theory. It's much better to look at the case in practical terms," said a senior federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the government's current thinking on the file.

Experts said it would be easier to gauge the impact of the law on individuals through the court challenge that is set to be heard by the Quebec Superior Court, where Muslim women will be appearing as witnesses.

"In a reference [to the Supreme Court], you don't have testimony or evidence on the actual impact on people and any limits to their rights and freedoms," retired Supreme Court justice Louis LeBel, who is now in private practice, said in an interview. "What you get to look at are legal and intellectual issues and the law's overall impact on society."

Supreme Court references have sporadically been used by the federal government over the years to gain clarity on issues such as a province's right to unilateral secession. The Harper government also relied on the process in 2013 to determine the constitutionality of possible reforms to the Senate.

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Daniel Proulx, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sherbrooke, said sending Quebec's face-covering law to the Supreme Court would be seen as an affront to the provincial government.

"A reference would be a frontal attack," he said. "In my view, the federal government will intervene in the court challenge. … It would be less confrontational."

There has been heated debate across Canada in recent weeks on the federal government's proper response to Bill 62, which aims to promote "religious neutrality" in Quebec. The NDP and a number of Liberal MPs have said Ottawa should let the debate play out at the provincial level, while others have argued for a strong federal intervention.

Earlier this month, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Association launched a court challenge in Quebec Superior Court, seeking to suspend the application of the section dealing with uncovering one's face until a full constitutional challenge is heard.

There will be a first hearing on the application for a stay on Friday. A federal observer will be in the room to monitor the process, but federal lawyers will not get involved in the groups' request to suspend the application of the law, sources said.

A federal official said Ottawa has yet to decide whether to intervene in the challenge, and if it does, at which stage of the process federal lawyers would make their case.

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"If you decide to intervene, when do you intervene? Right now? At the appeal stage? Or do you wait until you are at the Supreme Court?" the official said. "There is no rule, no magic recipe."

On Saturday, Mr. Trudeau said his government is closely monitoring the application of the law adopted by the Quebec National Assembly last month.

"We're listening to the questions being asked about it and, internally, we're in the process of studying the different processes we could initiate or that we could join," he said.

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