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The Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Christine St-Pierre, left, Premier Jean Charest, Immigration Minister Yolande James, second from right, and Justice Minister Kathleen Weil speak at a news conference Wednesday. ((CBC))

Muslim women or others who wear face coverings in Quebec will have to remove them if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials, according to legislation tabled on Wednesday.

Bill 94, tabled by Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, lays out under what conditions public institutions can make accommodations to employees or to the public.

Flanked by three of his female ministers, Premier Jean Charest told a news conference in Quebec City that the bill is a solution to the need to balance individual freedoms with the values of Quebec society, including the equality between men and women and secular public institutions.

"This is a symbol of affirmation and respect — first of all, for ourselves, and also for those to whom we open our arms," Charest said.

"This is not about making our home less welcoming, but about stressing the values that unite us ...

"An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state."

The proposed legislation defines a reasonable request as one that does not create any undue hardship or expense for the state. For example, a woman who insists on being served by a female civil servant for religious reasons would have to wait in line until one was available.

"We believe firmly that we are within the limits of the Charter of Rights and we needed to confirm it … legislatively," said Weil.

Controversial issue

By tabling the controversial law, the government is responding to a debate that has been raging since 2006.

In 2007, the province launched the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on issues of reasonable accommodations following concerns over reports of members of religious and cultural communities making special requests at public institutions.

More recently, the debate was stirred up by an Egyptian woman who was expelled from provincially funded French language classes after she refused to remove her niqab — a style of veil that covers essentially the whole body, leaving only the eyes exposed.

Though similar debates over questions of identity have been ongoing for years in Europe, Quebec is the lone Canadian province to have addressed the issue.

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Naïma Atef Amed is one of a handful of Quebecers who wear a niqab for religious reasons. She will have to remove it to get any kind of public service. ((CBC))

The opposition Parti Québecois dismissed the bill, calling for clear limits to accommodation requests to be inscribed in the province's charter of rights.

The bill only legislates existing jurisprudence and confirms that the government will study requests for accommodation on a case-by-case basis, said PQ justice critic Véronique Hivon.

On Wednesday, the PQ used question period to attack the government on its decision to modify the school calendars permitting institutions to teach on weekends and certain holidays — a decision the opposition said was made to meet the demands of the Jewish community.

Welcomed by women's group

Bill 94 was welcomed by the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, a government advisory body.

The bill is an important step towards preserving the equality of women, said Christiane Pelchat, the group’s president.

"When you live in a society there's a minimum of common rules that has to be respected," said Pelchat.

The real impact of the bill will be to prevent women who are wearing religious headdresses from integrating into Quebec society, said Salam Elmenyawi, chairman of the Muslim Council of Montreal.

"We travel thousands of miles and kilometers to go to … Afghanistan to teach woman in [niqabs], because we claim the Taliban denies an education," said Elmenyawi. "When they come to us here in Montreal, we tell them, no, we won't give you access. What is the difference between them and the actions of Taliban?"

Some human rights groups also expressed concern about the legislation, warning it could create a slippery slope.

"Where the bill can be problematic is the possibility of creating a precedent," said Fo Niemi, director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations.

"Today it is the niqab, tomorrow it could be the hijab the day after that it could be the Sikh turban … and then afterwards … how far we go? Will we even go to the point that we withdraw funding from the Jewish hospital or require that the Jewish hospital remove its Jewishness because the state shall not fund or support religious expression?"

There are only a handful of women in Quebec who cover their faces in the name of their faith. Of nearly 150,000 provincial health insurance card photos taken last year, just 10 involved requests for accommodation from women in niqabs.

The bill will go through commission hearings and could be adopted by the end of the spring.

With files from The Canadian Press