As It Happens

Quebec justice minister says face-covering ban 'protects display of religious beliefs'

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée tells As It Happens how Quebec plans to enforce its controversial new face-covering ban.
Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée provides further details on Tuesday about how the government's controversial Bill 62 will be implemented at the legislature. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Story transcript

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée is defending the province's controversial new face-covering ban against allegations it puts Muslim women in the crosshairs.

Bill 62, which passed into law on Wednesday, stipulates that people must uncover their faces while providing or receiving public services in the province.

While the government has dubbed the law "religious neutrality" legislation, critics say it targets Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka.

As It Happens host Carol Off asked Vallée about how the new legislation works and what its implications will be. Here's what she had to say.

Who is it you're aiming this bill at besides the women who cover their faces for religious reasons?

It's a bill that's aiming to address living together in harmony.

In Quebec, we've had debates around religious neutrality of state, secularism, around the general treatment of accommodation requests that have been presented. We've had these discussions for 10 years over here at the National Assembly.

There have been bills presented by every political party here at the National Assembly since 2013 trying to give a response to the general preoccupation with the public with regards to these issues.

And the issue is what?

There were preoccupations with regards to the request for accommodation on religious grounds.

What happens when somebody who's covered with a niqab is trying to get on a bus in Montreal?

If the person has a transportation ticket that doesn't call for identification, the person goes on the bus.

We have in Montreal and other cities transportation tickets that call for identification because they have a special rate, whether it is for students or for older people, and these cards, these transportation cards, have a photo identification. If the person has a photo identification, they have to identify themselves and, once it's done, they go on the bus and, here they go, they ride the bus.

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal on Saturday. Vallée says women with their faces covered can board transit so long as ID is not required. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Don't you already have a rule about that?  ... Why do you need a new law that aims at women for religious reasons?

The law does not aim at women.

Well, by default it does.

I'll repeat it as often as I have to repeat it: this is not what the law is aiming at.

Why is it only pertaining to covering the face? Why doesn't this involve turbans? Why doesn't this involve crucifixes? Why doesn't this involve nuns' habits or a kippa? 

The importance of having the face uncovered while public services are being rendered is under a reason for the quality of the communication between the public servant and the beneficiary of the service and also to make sure that identification is being verified and some security reasons.

Throughout the discursions on the bill, we have had many requests from the opposition asking us to go further, not to permit accommodation requests, which would be totally disrespectful of the Charter. We didn't go there.

But there are reasons in a society, there are grounds that justify the need of clear communication between individuals for identification and security reasons and this is what the bill is really all about.

A group of women wore niqabs on Sunday in Montreal to protest Bill 62, which was passed into law on Wednesday. (Matt D'Amours)

You can appreciate that in an environment where you have Muslims facing far more hate crimes, exponentially more than before, you have had a shooting, six people dead in a mosque, that in this environment ... are you not putting these women at risk?

I will not accept the comment that we are putting people at risk. This bill is respectful of people's rights. It's respectful of the Charter. And it calls for better living together rules that have never been set before. 

You know yourself that this bill is immensely popular. Eighty-seven per cent, according to a poll, support what this bill is doing. Some people wanted you to go further. This is as far as you're going to go. I will put it to you that this law appears to be politically-motivated. What do you say to that?

It's not politically-motivated. Any government in here Quebec would have had to table a bill about these very delicate issue of living together.

We have to make sure that whenever there are discussions, there are grounds established, because we don't want to have misconception — and there has been a lot of misconception about the place and the display of religious beliefs.

This bill protects display of religious beliefs and it does not prohibit the wearing of a religious symbols in the public space or even in government.

This interivew has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée.