The Quebec government’s new face-covering law will be approached with “common sense,” a spokesperson for the province’s justice minister says, amid criticism, protests and confusion over how the rules will be applied.
Isabelle Marier St-Onge said the provincial government has no intention of establishing a patrol unit to ensure compliance with the legislation, which effectively prohibits a Muslim woman wearing a niqab or burka from accessing public services.
“It’s not a coercive law,” Marier St-Onge said in an email, adding that there are no sanctions listed in the legislation for those who don’t comply.
Generally speaking, she said, the government wants people to uncover their faces when they receive a public service but, she stressed, “we will apply common sense.”
The rules are for communication, identification and security reasons, and will only apply when deemed necessary.
The comments appear to be a departure from those made last week by Marier St-Onge’s boss, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée.
Last Monday, Vallée told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak that the law would be in effect for the duration of the public service provided, including a ride on a city bus.
“As long as the service is being rendered, the face should be uncovered,” she said at the time.
Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government has faced a flurry of criticism since the law was adopted last Wednesday.
Opponents have called the bill an attack on Muslim women, while municipal politicians have said it’s unfair to ask public servants such as bus drivers or library workers to decide who they serve.
Referring to Quebec’s new law on religious neutrality, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said ‘it’s not easy to carve a path when legislating, when presenting new law.’ (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
The premiers of Alberta and Ontario have denounced the law, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said governments shouldn’t tell women what they can and cannot wear.
Guidelines for how the law is to be applied were originally to be released by next summer at the latest, after a round of consultations with various ministries and government agencies.
Now, in an effort to quell concerns, Vallée’s office says the rules will be released this week.
Already, on Monday, Health Minister Gaétan Barrette told reporters that “patients needing care in the emergency room will have care provided to them,” even if they are wearing a burka or niqab.
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said he’s anxious to see those guidelines, “because as far as we see it now, it’s not applicable.”
“We’re waiting for them,” Pedneaud-Jobin, the caucus president of large cities in the Quebec Union of Municipalities, told Daybreak.
“Our main message in cities is that this is very at odds with our priorities to make sure people live together better, and we don’t see how in any way this bill is going to help us,” he said.
Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, predict the law will be challenged.
Marie-Claude Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said it was “extremely worrisome” that the “government would use the law to target and marginalize a group rather than protect those who already suffer at the hands of discrimination.”
“Laws should be adopted to end discrimination, not promote it,” she said.
Province facing criticism from both sides
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Vallée said the province is prepared to fight “tooth and nail” to defend both the elements of the law and the province’s right to legislate.
“We get criticism both from those who say we’re going too far and those who consider that we’re not going far enough.”– Stéphanie Vallée, Quebec justice minister
She noted that most members of Quebec’s legislature agree with the principle behind the bill.
The two main opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec, have been pressing the government to take a hard stance on the issue.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has played up identity issues in the lead-up to the 2018 provincial election. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
As well, an Angus Reid poll published in early October, before Bill 62 became law, showed that 87 per cent of Quebecers support the bill’s objectives.
Part of the reason the debate has become so heated, Vallée said, is because Quebec is trailblazing onto new legislative territory, as it did when it passed medically assisted dying legislation.
“It’s not easy to carve a path when legislating, when presenting new law,” she said.
“We get criticism both from those who say we’re going too far and those who consider that we’re not going far enough.”