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MONTREAL — Proposed Quebec legislation introduced by the Liberal government on Wednesday would ban face coverings for anyone giving or receiving government services.
But prohibiting the full veil was as far as the governing Liberals would go as they introduced their long-awaited bill on religion and the state, electing not to tread into the thorny territory that got their Parti Quebecois predecessors into trouble with their values’ charter.
Under the bill, the niqab or burka would be banned for those using government institutions and those who work for the public service, for reasons of security and communication.
The face-covering ban covers provincial employees only, however, and does not apply to municipal workers.
“This is not a bill that legislates on clothes,” Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said Wednesday.
The government won’t extend the ban to other religious symbols — even for those in authority such as judges, prison guards, police and other peace officers.
The PQ had gone further, calling for state secularism and seeking to ban the wearing of visible religious symbols for provincial employees, including hijabs, turbans, kippas and larger-than-average crucifixes.
The PQ proposed charter caused a deep rift in Quebec, with some welcoming it as a necessary measure while others blasting it as a source of division.
But the Couillard government opted for a different approach: the Liberal government’s Bill 62 speaks of “neutrality” and not “secularism” — as espoused by the PQ, and the bill doesn’t seek to promote or oppose anyone according to their religious beliefs.
“If there’s a message we want to be sending out today, it is (to) be respectful of diversity because diversity is wealth, in a way, and diversity makes Quebec what it is,” Vallee said.
The bill also seeks to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests.
A religious accommodation may be granted if it meets the following criteria: present no constraint “excessive” nor exorbitant costs for the organism, adhere to the principle of equality between men and women and the state’s religious neutrality.
“We hope that this discussion that we will have will be respectful and we are putting out a bill that lays the basis and the criteria for these accommodations,” Vallee said.
Federal Multiculturalism Minister Tim Uppal expressed support for Quebec’s proposed legislation.
“We broadly support Quebec’s legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services,” Uppal said in Ottawa. “Our government will be moving forward in the coming days with legislation with respect to the face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, and we will consider what other measures may be necessary.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in February he felt it was offensive to cover one’s face while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship, responding to a question about a Federal Court ruling that permitted it.
In Quebec City, there was feeling among opposition parties the Liberal government could have gone further.
The PQ’s Agnes Maltais said she was disappointed that state secularism was nowhere to be found in the Liberal bill.
Maltais added she was also surprised that municipalities are not subject to the proposed law.
Francois Legault, leader of the third-place Coalition for Quebec’s Future, said he hoped the Liberals would reconsider and forbid authority figures like police, judges and teachers from wearing religious symbols. That was recommendation made by Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor in their 2008 report on religious accommodations.
“I think, in order to make sure that it’s fair, that there is an appearance of fairness, I think that somebody in an authority position should not wear a religious sign,” Legault said.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
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