'Problematic' and a 'dog's breakfast': Quebec face-covering ban panned by authors of landmark report

A new Quebec law, purported to deal with secularism and the accommodation of minorities, is a "dog's breakfast" of contradictions, according to philosopher Charles Taylor. Gérard Bouchard, his co-author of a 2008 study of the issue, agrees it misses the mark.

Bouchard and Taylor's 2008 report aimed to reconcile Quebec's identity and minority rights

Philosopher Charles Taylor, left, and sociologist Gérard Bouchard released their recommendations in a report on Quebec identity and minority rights in May 2008. They are not impressed by Quebec's new law on face coverings. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A new Quebec law purported to deal with secularism and the accommodation of minorities is being called a "dog's breakfast" of contradictions by one of the authors of a landmark study of the issue.

The other author of the study says it would be "problematic" in its application.

In their 2008 report, sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor offered solutions aimed at assuaging concerns about the erosion of Quebec identity while respecting the rights of minorities.

The Liberal government's Bill 62 on religious neutrality, passed in Quebec's National Assembly on Wednesday, aims to address some of the recommendations laid out in their report.

However, speaking separately, both men say it misses the mark.

"It's a bit surprising that a law that purports to be about secularism reduces it to one dimension — religious neutrality — and doesn't explore separation of church and state, equality of religions and belief, freedom of religion," Bouchard told Radio-Canada's morning radio program Gravel le matin.

Bouchard pointed out that the law does not address the crucifix still hanging at the National Assembly.

Taylor had an even more scathing assessment. In a brief email, he called it "excessive and badly conceived, in fact, contradictory."

The bill represents Quebec's latest attempt to address the question of religious neutrality.

The separation of church and state is viewed as a central pillar of Quebec society, but successive governments have struggled to implement guidelines on what this should look like on a daily basis — with neutrality and secularism running up against religious freedom.

How will law be applied?

Bill 62 extends to municipal services, meaning women who wear a niqab or burka, and who refuse to remove them, wouldn't be able to go to the library, visit the doctor or take the bus or Metro

The guidelines on how the law should be enforced won't be ready until next summer. The law also provides for exceptions to be made on religious grounds, though exactly how that would work is unclear.

All this makes the law's application "problematic," Bouchard said.

The bus stops in winter and it's –30 C, and the woman with a niqab is there with her two small children. Will the driver leave her on the curb?- Sociologist Gérard Bouchard

"A woman with a covered face who presents herself at the hospital emergency room, we're not going to send her home if it's life-threatening," he said.

"Another scenario, the bus stops in winter and it's –30 C, and the woman with a niqab is there with her two small children. Will the driver leave her on the curb?"

Bouchard added that if people could be exempted for religious reasons, it would make the legislation moot.

Bill 62 bans people with a covered face from using public transit. (CBC)

The union representing workers at Montreal's public transit authority, the STM, has already said its members don't want that responsibility, while civil rights advocates say the law infringes on freedoms enshrined under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For his part, Taylor pointed out that the province justified the law for safety, communication and identification reasons.

But, he said, none of those are at stake when someone takes a bus or is treated by a doctor in hospital.

"It's a dog's breakfast," Taylor said.

'Stoking this fear'

The Bouchard-Taylor report of 2008 did suggest that public servants who exercise the power of the state — such as police, judges and prison guards — be barred from wearing religious garb.

It did not, however, extend the same recommendation to public employees such as teachers or daycare workers, or to those receiving services. 

Earlier this year, in an open letter, Taylor argued his report's recommendation was no longer necessary to promote harmony between Quebec's majority and minority populations.

"People misunderstood it as a question of authority and wanted to extend it to teachers and even daycare workers," Taylor said at the time. "It was stoking this fear and creating even deeper divisions."

In his letter, Taylor points to the divisive debate over the Parti Québécois's failed charter of values, which he said illustrated how attempts to limit people's freedom can have a stigmatizing effect.

A man argues with Dr. Najat Boughaba at a seniors' centre in Herouxville, Que., in 2007, when the tiny town made international news. (Ian Barrett/Canadian Press)

The Bouchard-Taylor commission, launched by then Premier Jean Charest, came after debate over religious minorities reached a boiling point in Quebec, when the small town of Hérouxville adopted a code of conduct for its non-existent immigrant population.

There were passionate debates, too, about whether a YMCA in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood should frost its gym windows at the request of a neighbouring Hasidic synagogue or whether publicly funded daycares should serve halal meals.

The resulting report warned that Quebec is "at a turning point."

"A very important exercise will be played out over the next five to 10 years whose purpose will depend on Quebecers themselves," Bouchard and Taylor wrote.

"It may be decisive for the future of our society."