The commission ruled that women wearing a niqab or a burka should show their face to male and female RAMQ employees. ((CBC))

The Opposition called on the Quebec government to clamp down on so-called reasonable accommodation of minority groups after the province's human rights commission ruled that the health insurance board has no obligation to satisfy religious or cultural preferences.

In separate opinions issued Tuesday, the commission weighed in on three cases involving people who asked that their religious, cultural or linguistic preferences be accommodated when dealing with employees of the province's health insurance board, the Régie de l'assurance-maladie du Québec (RAMQ).

Up until Tuesday, RAMQ did accommodate such requests on a case-by-case basis, handling about a dozen a year.

Parti-Québécois immigration critic Louise Beaudoin said the commission's ruling should serve as the basis for a new law declaring all public services officially secular — and banning all accommodation of religious preferences.

"That's what we would like to stop: that case-by-case method of doing things," said Beaudoin. "We have to do something."

Guidelines coming

The government will table new guidelines to help civil servants better handle such requests but will probably not go as far as to table legislation, said Immigration Minister Yolande James.


Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James says she will table guidelines to help civil servants deal with requests for accomodation. ((CBC))

"Our vision has always been one of inclusion, and diversity, while making sure Quebec's [common] values are respected," said James.

Citizens served in gender neutral fashion

In all three opinions, the commission ruled that civil servants and RAMQ users are expected to act neutrally, and neither party should expect any accommodation based on particular religious or cultural beliefs.

In the first case, RAMQ wanted to know what it should have done in the case of a Quebecer who refused to deal with a RAMQ employee because the worker spoke French with an accent. The commission ruled that the person's request to be served by another employee constituted prejudice and was unfounded.

In a second case, the board asked for an opinion on a client who refused to be served by an employee who wore a hijab, a Muslim headscarf. The commission ruled that no one can refuse service from any public employee wearing a headscarf because it is not illegal for civil servants to wear religious symbols at work.


PQ critic Louise Beaudoin is calling on the government to declare all public services officially secular. ((CBC))

In the third case, RAMQ asked what it should do when a client wearing a Muslim face covering (burka or niqab) requests to be served by a female employee — rather than a male one. The commission said the health board should not be obliged to provide female employees, because any public worker — whether a man or a woman — should reasonably be expected to serve anyone of either gender in a neutral fashion.

"It only takes a few seconds to verify identity [within the health care system]," said commission president Gaétan Cousineau. "And, it's done in a very neutral, administrative framework."

The commission's rulings were welcomed by Muslim Montrealer and freelance journalist Kinda Jayoush.

"You cannot accommodate people forever," said Jayoush. "For security reasons, in public places, you shouldn't be wearing the niqab. Even in Saudi Arabia, women are asked to lift their niqab at the airport. Women go to see male doctors, gynecologists, so I can't understand why in Canada, we should have special accommodations for that."

The question of what kind of accommodation of religious- or culture-based requests is reasonable most recently made headlines in Quebec after the government intervened in the case of a niqab-wearing Muslim woman. The government expelled the woman from two government-funded French language classes after she refused to remove her niqab in the classroom.