It’s not perfect, but Trudeau should leave Bill 62 alone
New law is mostly reasonable and it’s what Quebecers want
Quebec’s political class has been stumbling through uncomfortable, often unproductive cultural accommodation policy debates for more than a decade, and now the federal government could exacerbate tensions if it chooses to take action against the province’s religious neutrality law.
“As I’ve said several times,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “I don’t think a government should be telling a woman what to wear or not wear.”
Similar words were often spoken after the Parti Québécois unveiled its discriminatory Charter of Values in 2013, but they were truer then. The Charter was released along with a cringe-worthy guide to which specific forms of religious garb would be inappropriate for public sector workers, and it went far beyond face coverings.
The PQ values scheme was expected, and perhaps meant, to provoke a constitutional crisis; Couillard’s Bill 62 shouldn’t, unless the prime minister interferes in cultural domains typically delegated to the provinces.
Unfortunately, with opposition parties and media incessantly peddling ethnocentric nationalism, so-called reasonable accommodation issues remain under public scrutiny. The Couillard government felt the need to legislate an end to the debate this fall, rather than sparing Quebec’s Muslim community more anguish during an already trying year.
Parts of the law are problematic. It does not address the impropriety of the Christian crucifix above the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. Questions also remain about the practical application of its most controversial restrictions on the delivery and receipt of public services for those wearing face coverings.
Nonetheless, Quebec Liberals crafted a mostly reasonable framework for dealing with a number of religious requests, from school absences to the controversial niqab. In conformity with at least the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specific garments like the niqab or the even more restrictive burqa were not cited by name.
Even so, the legalities of face-covering provisions are being challenged by two non-profits and Marie-Michelle Lacoste (who converted to Islam in 2003 and now goes by the name Warda Naili), as is their right. However, Quebec appears confident that Bill 62 can withstand a Charter challenge.
As Trudeau weighs his legal options, which include intervening in the existing case or referring the matter directly to the Supreme Court, it’s important to note that despite his impassioned defence of adherents of a marginal religious practice — one that is the subject of tighter restrictions in several Muslim-majority nations and denounced publicly by many Muslim Canadians — Bill 62 does not “tell a woman what to wear.”
The bill proposes, and Quebec’s Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée later attempted to clarify, two core principles as it relates to niqabs and burkas: that public sector workers not wear face coverings (affecting no civil servants currently), and that citizens receiving public services be compelled to prove their identity by momentarily lifting the veil where visual identification is required — except students, who, if the minister was understood correctly, could be barred from attending classes. Amendments are clearly needed, but Bill 62 isn’t as aggressive or heartless as most critics suggest.
And if all of this is still too offensive, the bill also allows for some exemptions for practices stemming from sincere religious beliefs.
By riding a wave of outrage over what amounts to a relatively mild piece of legislation affecting a handful of Canadians — milder than what’s been approved by the European Court of Human Rights — Trudeau risks leaving Quebecers with the impression their right to govern their own affairs is occasionally debatable. An overwhelming majority of Quebecers and a clear majority of Canadians have been expressing discomfort over religious face coverings to pollsters for years.
In a province where it is often still a civil violation to display minority language with comparable prominence to French, it would be frustrating and politically unwise for a prime minister to choose a marginal, fundamentalist religious practice as the test case for jurisdictional limits on cultural autonomy.