Quebec Liberals play politics — and lose — with face-covering ban
Couillard government dealing with religious neutrality issue in a 'rather bungled way,' professor says
When the Quebec Liberals passed their religious neutrality bill last week, it was an attempt to fulfil an election promise and quell a debate that's been flaring up in the province for the better part of a decade. Instead, it's prompted protest and criticism from both sides of the debate.
Bill 62 states that anyone giving or receiving public services must do so with their face uncovered. The law applies to municipal and provincial services, including public transit, health care and libraries.
As a province, Quebec has a unique relationship to secularism that dates back to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebecers rejected the powerful grip of the Catholic Church.
The idea of legislating religious neutrality and providing a framework for requests for accommodation on religious grounds has been debated repeatedly in Quebec's legislature. The challenge, though, has always been actually setting the rules, including who they target and just how far they extend into daily life.
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Successive governments have tried to address the issue, from Jean Charest's Liberals, who recruited Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor in 2007 to head a commission on the reasonable accommodation of religious and cultural minorities, to the Parti Québécois (PQ) under Pauline Marois, which proposed a secular charter that would have prohibited public servants from wearing obvious religious symbols.
That proposal died on the order paper when the last election was called in 2014.
A few months later, in June 2015, the new Liberal government tabled Bill 62. It sat on the back burner for more than two years.
But with another provincial election now just a year away, the Liberals put the bill to a vote amid pressure from political rivals who have accused Premier Philippe Couillard of being soft on identity issues.
Couillard pressed to act
François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), in particular, has taken a hard line on questions of Quebec identity and has gained traction in the polls. Legault has called for tighter borders and fewer immigrants, and wants to ban religious symbols for public sector employees.
"[The Liberals are] a party that doesn't like to deal with identity issues, which has tried to avoid them historically," said Daniel Salée, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
"Now they sort of felt pushed in a corner: they dealt with it, and they are dealing with it, in a rather bungled way."
Now that Bill 62 is law, the Liberals are facing criticism from all sides.
The governing party's two main opponents — the CAQ and the PQ — argue the law doesn't go far enough. The CAQ says the government should have had the courage to ban more religious symbols, and the PQ says the Liberals made it too easy to opt out of the law for religious reasons.
The left-leaning Québec Solidaire also voted against the law, calling it "absurd and impossible to apply." The party also tabled a motion this week to debate the removal the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly, but it was rejected.
The law is also being slammed by leaders in the rest of Canada, as well as by Muslim groups, civil rights organizations and city mayors, who say it is discriminatory and unfairly targets Muslim women.
When the bill was first proposed, it only applied to provincial services, but an amendment made in August extended the bill to municipal services, including libraries and public transit. That's when the confusion began.
"When someone with a niqab arrives with their children, are we going to tell them, 'You aren't entering into the bus, or we're not giving you services'?" Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre asked last summer.
'They are not satisfying anyone'
By passing a law with less reach than the PQ's charter, the Liberals may have been trying to appease critics who say they are not doing enough when it comes to ensuring religious neutrality, and also those who say a law like this is simply unnecessary and discriminatory.
"It's not going to help them. On the contrary, because they are not satisfying anyone," Salée said. "They're certainly not satisfying the pro-diversity people, and they're certainly not satisfying people who are perhaps more militant or more ardent, [who want to] curtail immigration."
The Liberals now admit they had trouble communicating their plan and explaining the rules, particularly around public transit. Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée created confusion last week around whether or not a veiled woman would be able to ride a bus in light of the requirement for the face to be uncovered.
On Tuesday, Vallée tried to clarify the rules and seemed to backtrack.
A Muslim woman wearing a niqab or burka would only be required to uncover her face to take public transit if a photo ID is required — not for the duration of ride.
"I'm sorry that it wasn't as clear," she said in releasing the guidelines Tuesday. "Maybe what I'm doing today I should have done the day after we adopted the bill."
The confusion opened her up to further criticism from the CAQ's Nathalie Roy, who called Vallée's change of tune "a mess" and a "comedy act."
The government wanted to address a long-standing debate before Quebecers go to the polls next fall. Instead, it stirred up divisions once again, and it finds itself caught in the middle.