I used to joke during the short-lived Parti Québécois minority government that the Charter of Quebec Values debate put forth by then-Minister for Democratic Institutions Bernard Drainville was really a "Charter for those who are uncomfortable when seeing a hijab."
In the years before Mr. Drainville's charter, Quebec was engulfed in passionate debates about the place of religion in what we like to think of as a secularized society. Those debates involved every religion, of course, but the most intense debates involved Islam and, most notably, what Muslim women choose (or are somehow forced) to wear.
In Quebec, the hijab is collectively looked at with a sense of disapproval. Under the guise of the state's religious neutrality, the Quebec Charter would have, for instance, forced Muslim women working in the province's daycare system to make a choice: your head covering or your job. Employees paid by public funds would have had to shed any ostentatious display of religious faith. A majority of Quebeckers approved of this measure.
I'm not religious. As I've often written in La Presse, I don't believe in any God. But I've often written about how I thought we Quebeckers were sometimes going overboard when dealing with issues involving the hijab, be it the fate of those daycare workers, or that of a youth soccer player forbidden from entering the pitch because of said piece of cloth. Or, more recently, the decision of a Quebec judge not to even hear a civil case — her car had been impounded — by a citizen if she did not remove her hijab.
Let's say that in fiercely defending these women's right to wear the hijab, I was being very Canadian – for an average Quebecker. I was often reminded, with a measure of disdain, that this defense was inspired by "Trudeau's multiculturalism," Trudeau being Pierre Elliott, Justin's late father, the spiritual father of Canada's multicultural policies and ideology. It was meant as an insult, by the way.
Now, seeing how the Rest of Canada deals with the niqab debate, well, I feel very, very Québécois. I read Justin Trudeau's passionate defense of religious freedom at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and I could not disagree more. Tolerating the niqab is one thing. Making it a hallmark of religious freedom, really?
The face-concealing niqab, unlike the hair-covering hijab, hides an individual's prime interface with the world, while denying her individuality. Of course, one could argue that a "choice" is involved here when a woman wears one, but it is also a symbol of cultural and religious diktat that goes against every tenet of an open and equal society. Let's not forget about that.
So, when reading Mr. Trudeau's and Thomas Mulcair's positions, and the ROC's commentariat – allow me to show The Globe's editorials as exhibit No. 1 – I couldn't feel more removed from the Canadian consensus.
I'm sorry, but the niqab and other face-hiding garments are where I draw the line of my own openness. Yes, a free and open society should tolerate even the most extreme and mediaeval displays of religious faith. But I will not be shocked, appalled and on the verge of convulsing if sometimes – and I insist, sometimes – the state requires said niqab to be removed. Like, for instance, the day you are to become a Canadian during a citizenship ceremony. Would asking a woman to lift said head covering for a couple of seconds be an unfathomable assault on religious freedom? Wow.
Religious freedom is not absolute. If it were, the Supreme Court would have allowed Alberta's Hutterites to keep the right not to have their photos taken in order to obtain a driver's license. It did not, stating that this requirement was not an unacceptable infringement on their religious rights.
So there you have it, on the niqab issue, I feel in sync with the Quebec consensus. And weirdly, I feel close to the Prime Minister's views, who said that the niqab is a negation of Canadian values. This is rare, it might even be a first for me, really, and it feels weird to say, but I'll say it: on this issue, I agree with Stephen Harper.
Eds note: An earlier version of this column suggested that a niqab might not be removed during a citizenship ceremony. In fact, it is required to be removed to verify identification, but this can be done in private before the public oath is taken.