National Column: Not even sunglasses are spared in Quebec bill

by Chantal Hebert

Somewhere in the Quebec government’s legal department, a team of lawyers is bracing to argue in court in what may be the not-too-distant future that the wearing of dark sunglasses puts the safety of the province’s public transit system at risk. Ditto presumably in the case of local libraries and city parks.

For a province to declare war on sunglasses is pretty unique in the history of Canada. For a government to do so in the name of the separation of church and state is even more remarkable.

And yet according to Quebec’s Justice Minister StÈphanie Vallee, the sunglasses ban is part of Bill 62, the just-adopted law that requires Quebecers to uncover their faces to provide or receive provincial and municipal services.

Vallee’s contention is that critics who describe the law as a discriminatory attack on the fundamental rights of the minority of Muslim women who wear the face-covering niqabs and/or burkas have it wrong.

One can understand why so many would have come to that conclusion given that the bill’s title is: “An act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.”

Notwithstanding the bill’s label, VallÈe’s says that under her law someone sporting dark sunglasses would be treated in the same way as a woman wearing a face-covering veil. Both would have to remove them for the duration of a transit ride or, in the minister’s own words, for “as long as the service is being rendered.”

Vallee’s comments mostly illustrate the lengths to which Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government has to go to claim that it has, if not a public policy rationale, at least a legal footing for its dubious bill.

Unless some smaller Quebec town wants to wage war on face-covering snow apparel, Bill 62 may not be tested in real life anytime soon.

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Muslim women who veil their faces are hard to come by anywhere in Quebec, but in particular outside Montreal. Denis Coderre and ValÈrie Plante – the two main candidates vying for the mayoralty of the province’s metropolis in next month’s municipal election – have both vouched to disregard the new law.

The union that represents the city’s employees is also set to give its prescriptions a pass. There are no penal sanctions for those who fail to apply Bill 62.

Indeed, there are those who believe Couillard’s plan was to fend off charges that his government is failing to address the religious accommodation issue with a bill that is neither applicable nor legally viable.

What the new law will not do is end Quebec’s decade-long travails on the front of the accommodation of religious minorities.

It may not even be on the books long enough to be thrown out by the courts on constitutional grounds. That’s because it could be replaced by a more restrictive but not necessarily more constitutional law on religious wear sooner rather than later.

If elected to government next fall, either of Quebec’s main opposition parties would replace the Liberal ban on face-coverings with a wider one that would prohibit judges, crown attorneys, prison guards and police officers from wearing religious garments at work.

The Coalition Avenir QuÈbec – whom the latest of polls cast as the ruling Liberals’ main election rival – would add elementary and secondary school teachers to the list of those on whom it would impose a secular dress code.

The niqab flare-up in the 2015 election, the more recent backlash over M103, the federal Liberal motion dealing with Islamophobia, the floating of a values test on would-be immigrants at the time of the federal Conservative leadership campaign have demonstrated that the debate over the accommodation of religious minorities is not limited to Quebec.

On Friday, a tweet by Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown suggesting that, absent a federal intervention, the province should support a Charter-based court challenge of the Quebec law prompted a load of pro-Bill 62 responses from followers purporting to be Ontario voters.

Two decades ago, the federal government sought guidance from the Supreme Court on the divisive matter of Quebec secession. If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to be proactive in the festering debate over reasonable accommodation, he would seek the advice of Canada’s top court on achieving a Charter-friendly balance between the rights of religious minorities and the values of a secular society.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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