Written by Behraz Rezaie
Quebec has often prided itself on its multicultural nature, promoting acceptance, tolerance, neutrality, and understanding, because being a Québécois means being a citizen of the world; Quebec, after all, is comprised of people with nationalities from all around the globe who enrich the province with the diverse traditions and customs they bring with them.
However, with the passage of the controversial Bill 62 in the National Assembly last week, assumptions about our progressive nature have been put in question. The law states those who receive public services “must exercise their functions with their face uncovered” unless their working conditions require such apparels to be worn. It is clear that this law is designed to affect the few who cover their faces because of their religious beliefs. To understand the motives behind these concerns, we need to delve into the root of the conflict, the battle between Quebec and religion itself. Since the Quiet Revolution, Quebecers have rejected religious institutions and strongly supported state neutrality. Yet, here we are, 60 years later, falling on the other side of the spectrum, encouraging a radical kind of secularization. Indeed, politicians such as Nathalie Roy of the Coalition for Quebec’s Future go as far as demanding that all government workers be forbidden from wearing any sort of religious symbol. The truth is, this toxic viewpoint will only lead to the collapse of our political system: the state must represent its population and if the population adheres to different religions and practices, then the government must respect, if not reflect, this. Under the shadow of the Christian crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly, the government is not in a position to lecture others on secularism. Religious neutrality means allowing individuals the freedom to choose their personal beliefs, a right that must be extended to public servants.
However, the legislation does not stop at public service employees. It goes on to specify that those on the receiving end of public services must also have their faces uncovered; this last part of the bill is particularly problematic. Although the law is stunningly ambiguous with regard to its enforcement mechanisms, it leaves little room for imagination as it to who its target is: the minority female Muslim population who wear burqas and/or niqabs. Our diverse society, like far too many others, has fallen prey to the cruel clutch of discrimination… Laws such as Bill 62 pound people’s doors open, infiltrate their homes and tear everything apart, because they send a clear message to minorities that they are not welcome, while emboldening the most intolerant members of our society. Women who wear burqas, especially here in the West, where freedom of choice and expression are valued, are making conscious decisions. Premier Couillard may talk about the need for them to identify themselves, but he is in fact robbing them of their identities. The government’s decision to actively discriminate against people of certain faiths demonstrates, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of religious neutrality, and, at worst, a level of intolerance that sacrifices citizens’ fundamental rights to pursue an ideological agenda.
The main motive behind the bill remains unclear. Premier Couillard emphasizes the effect that such legislation would have on public security (i.e. preventing terrorist attacks) but this argument is tinged with Islamophobia. Taking action against terrorism is not equivalent to taking action against innocent, non-violent citizens. Making such associations between terrorists and Muslims is far below the dignity of the leader of such a multicultural province. The true motive is far more likely pure partisan politics: many have noted that the bill could be an attempt to please voters from regions outside of Montreal in preparation for the 2018 elections. The effects of the law would barely be felt in these rural areas, as the majority of those affected live in areas like Montreal. A principled leader would not prioritize electoral wins at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Even as the government attempts to clarify the vague proposals in its bill, the controversial nature of Bill 62 has forced us to discuss ugly issues that we believed had been laid to rest long ago. Islamophobia and intolerance are alive and well, and regardless of how the law is applied, the government has implicitly signalled that citizens’ fears about Muslims are well-founded, a dangerous proposition in today’s climate. Alas, I fear that it will not stop there. How far will we transgress the limits of society? How much will we sacrifice to reach ‘true’ secularism? How far are we willing to distance ourselves from the values of tolerance and pluralism? The truth is that we have already passed the line in the sand, and the government appears hellbent on drowning itself in a murky sea of xenophobia.
Lalonde, Michelle. “Bill 62 panders to anti-Muslim feelings outside Montreal: critics.” Montreal Gazette, http://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/bill-62-panders-to-anti-muslim-feelings-outside-montreal-critics.
Montgomery, Angelica. “Answers to some key questions on Quebec’s face-covering law.” CBC News, 22 Oct. 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/bill-62-quebec-vallee-niqab-burqa-ban-bus-public-services-montreal-1.4365153.
Quebec. “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.” Québec Official Publisher, 2015, http://www.assnat.qc.ca/Media/Process.aspx?MediaId=ANQ.Vigie.Bll.DocumentGenerique_105257en&process=Default&token=ZyMoxNwUn8ikQ+TRKYwPCjWrKwg+vIv9rjij7p3xLGTZDmLVSmJLoqe/vG7/YWzz.
Valiante, Giuseppe. “Quebec’s face veil ban may face a Supreme Court challenge.” The Star, 23 Oct. 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/10/23/quebecs-face-veil-ban-may-face-a-supreme-court-challenge.html.
Wells, Paul. “Why Quebec’s Bill 62 is an indefensible mess.” Maclean’s, 23 Oct. 2017, http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/why-quebecs-bill-62-is-an-indefensible-mess/.