Quebec wants to expand religious symbol ban, blocking Muslim garments in civil service

Quebec's new government wants to block Muslim women who work in the civil service from wearing the chador, a shawl-like piece of clothing that covers the head and body, and the niqab, which also covers the face.

Coalition Avenir Québec immigration minister plans to 'move quickly' on secularism law

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette is the CAQ government's point person on secularism. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec's new government is planning to block Muslim women who work in the civil service from wearing the chador, a shawl-like piece of clothing that covers the head and body, and the niqab, which also covers the face.

Coalition Avenir Québec ​Premier François Legault has already made clear his intention to prohibit those who hold positions of authority including teachers from wearing religious symbols, such as the hijab, a Muslim headscarf.

The ban on the chador and niqab, however, would extend to all employees in the public sector. A representative from the CAQ couldn't say how many people such a ban would affect.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the government's point person when it comes to ensuring the secularism of the state, said Wednesday the government plans to "move quickly" to introduce a law.

"It was always our position to prohibit the chador in the public service," said Jolin-Barrette, in response to questions following a report in the Journal de Montréal about the government's stance.

There is no mention of banning the garments in the CAQ's online platform, but the party has played up its commitment to such a policy in the past.

In 2016, the CAQ said on Twitter that it would "defend Quebec values" by banning the chador, unlike its rivals, the Liberals and the Parti Québécois.

Jolin-Barrette said it was too early to provide details on exactly how and when the law would be implemented. 

Later on Wednesday, Legault said a law prohibiting religious symbols isn't "a priority" for the CAQ, which created some confusion about the issue. 

"One important value is equality between men and women, so we want to protect that. Now, is this a priority? No," he said.

'Surreal' debate

Montreal lawyer Shahad Salman, who wears a hijab, said she is discouraged the new government — and the media —  continues to focus on identity issues "rather than talking about real issues." 

"It's so surreal that we're talking about this again, honestly," she said. Salman said such debates are counterproductive if politicians want minorities to become more integrated into Quebec society.

As it stands, when it comes to minorities in Quebec's civil service, the percentage doesn't reflect the overall population.

Visible minorities made up 9.4 per cent of the province's public workforce in 2017, although they constitute 13 per cent of the overall population, according to a study by the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques,

The chador, which covers the head and body but leaves the face exposed, is a garment commonly worn in Iran, where this photograph was taken. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated Press)

The CAQ's planned ban on religious symbols has been criticized by civil rights advocates who contend the policy will further marginalize vulnerable minorities. 

Charles Taylor, author of a landmark 2008 report on the accommodation of religious minorities in the province, called the proposal "either very ignorant or very intellectually dishonest."

In a recent interview, he pointed out that his report explicitly recommended against including teachers in a ban on the wearing of religious garb.

"We meant it to apply only to people with functions that we called 'coercive authority' — police and judges. Functions that can put you in jail," Taylor said.

Lacking 'coherent plan,' Liberals say

The CAQ won a decisive majority in the Quebec election earlier this month, beating out Philippe Couillard's Liberals.

Pierre Arcand, the interim leader for the Liberals, said the CAQ doesn't appear to have a "coherent plan" when it comes to religious symbols.

The new government appears to be floating a new trial balloon every day, he said. 

Arcand said he would reserve comment until a bill is tabled. 

With files from Cathy Senay and Steve Rukavina

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.