With all Quebec parties supporting a face-covering ban, voters face few options

Voters who are offended by the Quebec Liberal government's ban on face-coverings for anyone giving or receiving public services might seek ways to protest at the ballot box, but they don't have many options.

Opponents turn to the courts, but ballot box leaves few options

The Couillard government's law banning people from receiving public services with their faces covered has left some Quebecers fuming, particularly in Montreal. But what are voters going to do about it? (Sylvain Charest/CBC)

Margaret Sankey is a card-carrying member of the Quebec Liberal Party, but she is disgusted by her party's covered-face ban.

Just last year, she was sitting on the executive of the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce riding association.

However, she says, she will not be going door to door to campaign for her MNA, Kathleen Weil, in the next provincial election because of the legislation she calls "a mistake."

"It does comes down to, 'Well, what are my other options for voting?'" said Sankey. "This party does not really represent my beliefs if they are going to do that."

"I am now changed from having been a firm Liberal party voter to undecided." she said.

The courts vs. the ballot box

Like constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, Sankey believes the law will collapse before the courts.

The Liberals, though, have vowed to defend the law "with force and vigour" and say they are convinced they will win.  

The Couillard government also hasn't ruled out the possibility of using the notwithstanding clause to override potentially problematic sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which would render any court challenges useless.

Philippe Couilllard's government has imposed a face-covering ban on those giving and receiving public services but has resisted calls to stop those who wear overt religious symbols from holding certain jobs in the public sector. (Radio-Canada)

Citizens who want to knock down a piece of legislation normally have another option: to vote out those behind it.

In 2014, groups such as Quebec Inclusif mobilized against the Parti Québécois's proposed charter of values, which would have banned people who wear ostentatious religious symbols from working in the public service.

The proposal died when voters catapulted the PQ out of power in 2014.

A similar movement against the face-covering ban would face an uphill battle because both of the Liberals' main political opponents — the Coalition Avenir Québec and the Parti Québécois — have pledged to push the ban even further if they are elected.

Québec Solidaire an alternative, sort of

Québec Solidaire, the left-leaning party that has just three seats in the National Assembly, said it would not go as far as the Liberals did in their legislation, but it would maintain some restrictions on religious face-covering.

Co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said his party would keep the ban for all public servants but would only require members of the public to unveil when it is necessary to identify them or for security purposes.

Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said the Liberal ban on face-coverings is too wide-reaching, but his party would still require people to show their faces in some situations. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"I think it's pretty much common sense that if in a very specific situation you need to be identified, well, I think it's normal to ask the person to identify himself", said Nadeau-Dubois.

However, Québec Solidaire has also adopted what Nadeau-Dubois calls a "compromise" position that takes a harder line than the Liberals in one respect: it would bar people who wear overt religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs from working as judges, correctional officers and police officers.

This flies in the face of policies adopted by the RCMP and many other police forces in the rest of Canada that have made special allowances for officers who wear religious headgear.

'Not overly popular' with English-speakers

The face-covering legislation is "not overly popular" in Montreal, especially with anglophones, acknowledges Liberal Party vice-president Casper Bloom, who is responsible for the English-speaking community.

"It's going to have repercussions for sure on the party. Probably it is going to be one of the issues in the next election," Bloom said.

However, it is hard to pinpoint just what the political impact would be, Bloom said.

With the CAQ's even tougher stance on religious face-coverings, some traditional Liberal voters in Montreal may think twice before switching to them, he said, and Québec Solidaire's support for sovereignty will remain a barrier.

According to the only public opinion poll taken since the law's adoption, the CAQ is now eating into the Liberals' support base.

Liberal popularity is dropping among non-francophones, and a shift toward the CAQ is even perceptible in Montreal, where voters have been historically cold toward the centre-right alternative.

Christian Bourque, executive vice-president for Léger, which conducted the poll, said the handling of the law may only add to what some might see as a series of bungled files.

"It is hard to isolate bill 62 as being the ballot-box question," Bourque said.

Another possibility is that some disgruntled Liberal voters might stay home.

While that is unlikely to change the results in ridings like D'Arcy-McGee, where more than 92 per cent of the electorate voted for the Liberals in 2014, the margin of victory was much closer in some other parts of Montreal.

"In some ridings, it may actually make the difference," Bourque said.

The idea of staying home entirely on election day is an awful thought for Margaret Sankey, who has poured so much of her time and energy.

Still, she finds herself considering that possibility.

"It's a terrible option, also. I am not sure. I am really not sure what I'll do," Sankey said.


Angelica Montgomery is a journalist in Quebec City for CBC News.