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Security? Discrimination? Both? Bill 62: Quebec's Controversial New Law

A review and analysis of Quebec's controversial Bill 62 As you may have heard, Quebec’s National Assembly adopted Bill 62 on October 18, sparking controversy across the nation. The Bill effectively bans people with facial coverings from using certain public services. Some call it a necessary safety measure, while others see it as an unconstitutional example of systemic racism by others. In order to get to the bottom of this complicated issue, we’re going to take a look at what the Quebec government says it’s trying to do, what it may actually be trying to do, and what that could mean to the people of Quebec and Canada, as a whole.

Quebec's Exclusive History From the inception of Canada as a nation, Quebec’s ties to the Catholic Church had been strong and clear. This era came to an end in the 1960s with the Quiet Revolution, but some argue that Catholic values still shape the supposedly-secular province. Modern debate about religious neutrality in the province was sparked in the mid-2000s. With the emergence of “reasonable accommodation” discourse, some municipal Quebecois politicians started trying to rule religious (ie. Muslim) customs and garments as unacceptable. The provincial government proposed the Charter of Values in 2013. It was not passed, but, if implemented, the Charter would have restricted what kinds of religious symbols public employees could wear. Today, Quebec publicly identifies as a secular province, yet Catholic influence is still evident. To this day, a crucifix hangs in the National Assembly of Quebec, serving as a symbolic reminder of Catholic presence in the government.

The Law Bill 62 means that those who have facial coverings including niqabs and burkas are faced with the option of removing them or being denied of certain public services. Any time a person may need to use photo identification, this law can potentially come into effect, including:

  1. Picking children up from a public daycare

  2. Interacting with hospital staff

  3. Taking out a book from the library

International Implementing this law makes Quebec the first place in North America to join countries like France, Austria, and Belgium in effectively banning face veils. Germany and Turkey have also put similar legislation into effect. Efforts to regulate public clothing are globally contentious and often result in heated protests.

Response Already, Quebec’s Bill has garnered a national response. Premiers from Alberta and Ontario, as well as the mayor of Montreal, have expressed distaste for the law. Academics Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard have criticized Bill 64 for its many contradictions. For example, the Bill claims to be about secularism, but doesn’t explore the separation of church and state, they argue. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has approached the issue cautiously and initially, stated that it is ‘not up to the federal government’ to challenge Quebec’s religious neutrality law. Trudeau has since elaborated to say that governments shouldn’t tell women what they can and cannot wear. Some citizens, who see religious face coverings as an oppressive custom, feel that this law is a progressive step towards liberation. Others, like Asma Ahmad, argue that “people are trying to liberate us, but they're doing the opposite when they're telling us what to do. Nobody is forcing us to cover ourselves, but this law is forcing us to uncover ourselves.” interview=">interview" with="with" The="The" Globe="Globe" and="and" Mail="Mail</a>">.

Quebec’s Intentions Bill 62 is very ambiguous, so last week Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée clarified the function of the Bill in order to (sort of) clear up key issues and quell the uproar. Vallée argues that Quebec did not intend for the law to be repressive. She clarified that it only applies when required for communication, identification or security reasons. The same rules will apply to someone wearing sunglasses and a scarf, she said. She also mentioned that individuals may be eligible for exemption on the basis of religious grounds.

What’s Actually Going on Here? Critics representing a wide range of perspectives have criticized Quebec’s intent with Bill 62. Political opponents in Quebec have criticized Vallée for softening the original intent of the Bill by “clarifying” the purpose after receiving backlash. Shaheen Ashraf, board member of Canadian Council of Muslim Women in Montreal, also doubted the government’s intentions. She claimed that the Quebec government may be using this as a tactic aimed at diverting attention from the breakdown of roads in the province or an attempt to gain political favour. This speculation may hold water. An Angus Reid poll published before Bill 62 became law showed that 87% of Quebecers agreed with the provisions.

Security and/or Liberty Some critics took issue with Vallée’s use of security as a justification for a potentially unconstitutional law. If this language sounds familiar, you might be remembering the 2014 federal election. Vallée’s idea that religious veils are a threat to security is the same argument that was central to Stephen Harper’s electoral platform in 2014. Canada has more or less done away with an explicitly discriminatory policy. While common sentiment toward human equality and justice has relatively improved, discriminatory policies are still made and continued through more implicit language. A key feature in this implicit language is the idea of security. Governments have increasingly used security to justify the restriction of liberty and privacy since the September 11th attacks. Is this one of those cases? Or is this law simply an issue of public safety?

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