The government of Quebec has proposed legislation that will mandate the unveiling of Muslim women who require government services. This is the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy about "reasonable accommodation". The province of Quebec has been in the front lines of the clash between cultures and there is now considerable litigation as to where the lines between accommodation and traditional values should be drawn. More to come, no doubt.
Unveil, Quebec says
Graeme Hamilton, National Post
Quebec will refuse all government services, including education and non-emergency health care, to fully veiled Muslim women under legislation tabled yesterday in the National Assembly.
Jean Charest, the Liberal Premier, said the bill establishing guidelines for the accommodation of religious minorities is aimed at "drawing a line" to demonstrate that gender equality is a paramount Quebec value.
"If you are someone employed by the state and you deliver a service, you will deliver it with your face uncovered," he told reporters in Quebec City. "If you are a citizen who receives services, you will receive them with your face uncovered."
The bill applies not only to government departments and Crown corporations but also to hospitals, schools, universities and daycares that receive funding from the province.
The proposed guidelines in Bill 94 follow an uproar this month over the expulsion of a niqab-wearing woman from French courses after she insisted that male students in her class not see her face. Quebec's Immigration Department tracked her to a second college where she was studying French and had her expelled again because she would not remove her niqab, a veil that leaves open a slit for the eyes.
"If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values," Immigration Minister Yolande James said at the time. "We want to see your face."
Quebec, which for more than three years has been grappling with the issue of accommodating religious differences, is the first province to take such a stance against the niqab and burka.
In Ontario, women wearing a full veil can make special arrangements to receive government services without exposing their faces to male bureaucrats.
Canada's chief electoral officer has ruled that under current law, veiled women can cast ballots. In France, on the other hand, President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday pledged to introduce legislation banning outright the full Muslim veil, which he called "contrary to the dignity of women."
Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said it makes no sense for Quebec legislators to be worrying about a practice that remains marginal.
Of the more than 200,000 Muslims in the province, he estimates that just two dozen wear a full veil. Mr. Elmenyawi called it "very troubling and serious" that the government has tailored legislation that "points a finger" at the Muslim community.
"If we are talking about integration, then this is actually much worse, because it will prevent them from integrating or changing their ideas," he said. "We should leave society to self-adapt, let them either explain themselves to their fellow citizens or adapt and change their ways." He predicted that if the bill becomes law, it will be challenged as an infringement of the freedom of religion guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Charest said government lawyers believe that the bill respects the Charter. It reflects his government's commitment to "open secularism," he said, noting that other religious symbols such as the Christian crucifix, Jewish skullcap and Muslim head-scarf can continue to be worn by those providing and receiving government services. The niqab and burka are considered unacceptable in part because they interfere with security, identification and communication.
The opposition Parti Quebecois wanted the government to go further in establishing that Quebec is a secular state, prohibiting government employees from wearing any visible religious symbols.
Ms. James said the legislation sends a message to recent immigrants. "Quebec opens its doors to new arrivals as they are, but they must equally agree to adopt the values of Quebec society," she said.
Philippe Archambault, an aide to Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, confirmed that the law will apply to the full array
of government services, from students attending college to patients seeking a checkup. A humanitarian exception would be made for someone requiring emergency medical care, he said.
Daniel Weinstock, a professor of philosophy at Universite de Montreal, said the bill does a good job of grouping existing rules that limit the granting of accommodations to religious minorities. For example, it makes clear that gender equality and the state's religious neutrality must be respected.
"There's a perception out there in Quebec that the granting of accommodations is excessive and anarchic, that there are really no principles involved, and it's just whoever's whim happens to be holding sway," he said. "I think that is factually incorrect."
Mr. Weinstock said Quebec is addressing head-on issues that are being ignored elsewhere in Canada. "This is a very good thing," he said. "Whatever happens as a result of the debates in the National Assembly over this bill, and whatever the final form of this legislation is, we are having a very interesting societal debate here in Quebec that has to do with issues that are not specific to Quebec."