The Canadian province of Quebec passed Bill 62 on October 18, a controversial law that requires people to take off any veil, niqab, or burka when giving or receiving a public service. This law was adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec by a 66 to 51 vote, making it the first law of its kind in North America.
The new law has received widespread support, but even more widespread opposition, as many saw it as a direct target against Muslim women, attacking their freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Even though the legislation does not specifically mention the niqab or burka, and only prohibits any face coverage when giving or receiving a public service, critics, among them journalist Allison Hanes, believe it to be a “racist, sexist, disgraceful law” the Liberal government is using as a pretense to avoid more opposition.
The law’s most ardent defenders are Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée. Couillard said, “We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face.” She added, “We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”
Similarly, Vallée, stated that the law is more than a mere legislation on clothing, that “as long as the service is being rendered, the face should be uncovered.” She then proceeded to argue that the new law is a compromise between the Bill’s supporters and its opponents. “I think a balance has been found,” Valée stated in Quebec’s National Assembly, “I know people would have liked us to go further. Others think we are going too far.”
Opponents of the law, such as Ishaan Gardee, a member of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, argue that the passing of this new law represents a further marginalization of Muslim québécois. “We can’t divorce this bill from the larger context in which it falls,” said Gardee. He added, “According to Statistics, Canada, hate crimes targeting Canadian Muslims increased from 2012 to 2015 by 253%.”
Before the law was passed, The Liberal government repeatedly attempted to “foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” but simultaneously, there were also recurrent acts of violence against Muslim Canadians. Just in February of 2017, six men were shot dead as they prayed in a Mosque in Quebec. In his eulogy for these six husbands and fathers, Imam Hassan Guillet, argued that the killer, Alexander Bissonnette, was yet another victim that “didn’t emerge from a vacuum.” “Before he planted his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head,” Guillet said. “Unfortunately, day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians, and certain reporters and certain media, poisoned our atmosphere.”
Another vehement opposer of Bill 62 is the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, a practicing Sikh who he himself wears a turban and a kirpan for religious reasons. “I am opposed to Bill 62. I think it contravenes individuals freedoms and in fact it also contravenes the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms,” Singh told HuffPost Canada.
Singh’s clear-cut response contrasts sharply with Justin Trudeau’s, the current Prime Minister of Canada, who will be running for reelection against Singh in the 2019 federal election. Prime Minister Trudeau has been widely criticized by his vague, contradictory answers regarding his position on Quebec’s legislation. “I think we have to respect that this is a debate that is ongoing in society, and we respect that the National Assembly in Quebec has taken a position on this,” Trudeau told reporters. Trudeau’s verbal response is difficult to comprehend when compared with his social media response from just the day before, in which he tweeted that “when it comes to what people can and cannot wear – [his]position has always been known, and it’s where [he’ll] always be.” This response, he followed by a link to a speech he gave in 2015 at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, in which he emphasized the importance of respecting the freedoms of others.
Legal authorities are worried about the troubling, ambiguous nature of Bill 62. Likewise, human rights observers like Payam Akhavan, Professor of International Law at McGill University and Member of the International Court of Arbitration, remark that Quebec’s new law is an example of “absurd, hateful scapegoating spreading in what once was the Western liberal world.”