Bill 62, a law aiming to create “religious neutrality,” was passed in Quebec on Wednesday, which means “people” who cover their faces in public (read: Muslim women who wear a niqab or burka) will be barred from both providing a public service (as a doctor, for example, or bus driver or teacher), and from receiving provincial and municipal public services (like riding the bus, visiting the library or going to the doctor).
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because efforts to ban religious symbols in the province have been in the news since 2013, when the Parti Québécois government tabled a proposal to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols as part of its Charter of Values, which some argued targeted Muslim women in particular.
After the Parti Québécois was defeated in 2014, the Liberal government introduced their own proposal the following year, focused on banning covered faces. After tabling Bill 62 two years ago, the proposal was broadened in August to apply to include municipal services, meaning face coverings would be banned in places like libraries and on public transit. The majority-Liberal National Assembly passed the bill into law on Wednesday with 66 votes for and 51 against — the two major opposition parties who voted against it, the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec, only did so because it didn’t go far enough. And in response to those pesky civil rights activists who objected that a religious minority is being targeted, the government said there will be a mechanism to ensure that people won’t be subject to this law because of their faith, but it’s very unclear how that will work, since the whole point of the law appears to be targeting one particular expression of faith.
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Some might say that this is just a typical case of overreach: In an effort to rid Quebec of tyrannical religious relics, secular politics accidentally became tyrannical itself. But this ban isn’t about religion — it’s about one particular religion.
It’s absurd to argue that these women — it’s estimated that there are fewer than 100 of them — are a threat to Quebec’s secular culture, but their image is powerful, because they represent the kind of difference some Quebecers are uncomfortable with. And the Liberals know it. Premier Philippe Couillard defended the law by saying “the vast majority of Canadians, and not just Quebecers,” agree on the principle that your face should be uncovered to receive a public service. (Feels like another blast from the past, bringing to mind the whole 2015 election debate over the niqab.)
But here’s the thing about minority rights: The gargantuan effort required to pass a law impacting a tiny proportion of the population is usually reserved for protecting these people from the whims of the masses. The number of hours and amount of political capital put in by the Liberal government to bar a law-abiding, tax-paying population from accessing public services reveals less about the crusade for secular society than it does about which group is politically palatable to target.
Islamophobia conveniently hides behind the shield of secularism in Quebec, and many Quebecers, like Leila Bdeir and others, have argued that Islamophobia has a particular history of acceptability there. While a Forum poll last year found 28 percent of Canadians viewed Muslims unfavourably, that attitude was much more prevalent in Quebecers polled, at 48 percent.
Considering the impact Bill 62 will have, it’s laughable to hear Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée insist this new law is part of the pursuit of the “neutrality of the state.”
This law will do real harm to the group of women it targets. It deprives these women of the option to work in the stable, well-paying public service. It could deprive them of hospital visits, subsidized childcare and chats with their kid’s principal. Can you imagine this ban being imposed on any other group in Canada?
It also does nothing but fuel broader Islamaphobic sentiments, similar to what happened when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president — if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that you can’t just shove those sentiments back in the box. After the 2015 federal election, a host of Conservative leadership candidates ran on anti-immigrant platforms. Reports have recently revealed that the RCMP was targeting Muslim refugees at a border-crossing in Quebec. And now, this law sends the message that to choose to express religiosity is an affront to “Canadian values;” that it’s okay to treat some people like second-class citizens — and if they don’t look like “us,” they don’t have a right to the services they fund with their taxes. In a year where six Muslim men were killed because of their faith in that very province, the Liberal government has chosen to send a message that Muslims will never belong unless it’s on the government’s terms.
Not only does this law feed the particularly virulent strain of Islamophobia that has taken hold in Quebec, it puts thousands of public servants in the awkward position of enforcing systemic discrimination. The union representing bus drivers in Montreal has already said that drivers don’t want to be responsible for enforcement.
Given that this legislation may not withstand a legal challenge, it has the added cruel effect of making this small, yet very visible, group of women act as a proxy in an ongoing identity war they didn’t ask to be part of.
So, no, this isn’t what “religious neutrality” looks like. This is what Islamophobia looks like.