Montreal bus drivers are hoping for clarity — and bracing themselves for headaches — after Quebec lawmakers adopted a law today that would require a Muslim woman who wears a niqab or burka to uncover her face to ride a city bus.
The Liberal government's Bill 62 on religious neutrality prohibits public workers, as well as those receiving a public service, from covering their faces.
'I don't have a car, I don't have anybody to drive me around, so it will just block me from the rest of the world.' - Zayneb Binruchd, 21, who wears a niqab
The guidelines for how those working in the public sector should carry out the law, however, may not be ready until next summer, after a round of consultations.
That leaves the union representing employees of Montreal's transit corporation, the STM, worried that individual drivers will have to make a judgment call in the meantime.
"STM bus drivers don't want that responsibility. When it comes to applying the law, they want clear directives from the STM," union spokesperson Ronald Boisrond said in an interview.
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In an emailed statement, the STM said it's still evaluating how the law would be applied and "the instructions to employees that will result."
"Our goal will be to prevent employees from interpreting the law in their own way," said STM spokesperson Isabelle Tremblay.
Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée told CBC Montreal's Daybreak earlier this week that the law is necessary for "communication reasons, identification reasons and security reasons."
The ban on face coverings would be for the duration of the service provided, she said, meaning a niqab or burka would need to be removed for the entire bus ride.
'There's no logic,' Muslim woman says
Zayneb Binruchd, a 21-year-old who wears a niqab, says she doesn't have a car and takes the bus regularly — as much as six times a day. She said she'd rather stay home than take off her niqab to take a bus.
"I go to mall with my friends, I go out, I go to the library, so it will just make me stay home," she said.
"I don't have a car, I don't have anybody to drive me around, so it will just block me from the rest of the world."
Wearing the niqab is "important to me," she said. She sees no logic in the law.
"I have to go to the hospital, if I go to court I will take it off, I have no problem at all, but give me a reason why I have to take it off and I will take it off. But there's no logic, there's no reason," she said.
Legal challenges on horizon?
Daniel Salée, a political science professor at Concordia University, said the lack of clarity around the implementation of the law could lead to confusion.
"What should a bus driver do if a woman with a face cover comes into the bus? What should he do? That we don't know," he said.
Salée said the law is likely to be subject to a legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The legislation includes the possibility of an exemption for those who make a "serious" request for accommodation on religious grounds, though it's unclear how that would be evaluated.
Shaheeh Ashraf of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women said that opens the door to additional problems.
"Are these niqabi ladies going to be wearing a tag in their neck saying they're exempt [from] this law?" she asked. "How is it going to work?"