Veil of controversy

While we do occasionally endorse political parties and candidates on this site, the views expressed in this column are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of all members of Forget The Box or its affiliates. While it might seem needless to say, sometimes it’s a good thing to point out, like today….

Since the Charest Liberals announced they would deny government services such as drivers’ licenses and even French lessons to women wearing the niqab, most of the media has been abuzz over how this compared to the reasonable accommodations debate of a few years ago. While there is certainly a comparison to be made, I see a stronger parallel with a different story.

Last year, Gerald Tremblay, at the urging of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, tried to ban protesters from wearing masks and other assorted facial coverings at public demonstrations, conveniently forgetting the charter right of freedom of expression and the ironic fact that police themselves frequently wear masks at demonstrations.   This led to a massive outcry and two public protests in front of city hall.

Anti mask ban protest in front of City Hall (2009)

Bowing to public pressure, and presumably common sense (if someone throws rocks while wearing a mask, arrest them for throwing rocks, don’t fine him and everyone else for wearing a mask) the city removed the option from the table just before it was to be voted into law. The Tremblay administration brought the issue back in the summer before ultimately deciding to scrap it.

Now what would happen if Tremblay tries to bring this law back in a year or two, or maybe even this year? People will undoubtedly object again, possibly in greater numbers. All he would have to do, though, is say “look, religious freedom isn’t even grounds enough to argue against banning facial coverings, what grounds do you have? Freedom of expression? Ha.”

Whether it was intentional or not, Charest has set up his old Quebec Liberal buddy (and as well as others who want to trounce on our rights) beautifully and he did so with a perfect storm. With all attention focused on the religious or cultural significance of wearing a niqab and women’s rights in general, it’s very easy for this to become nothing more than a debate over religion, gender equality and cultural tolerance.

Much in the same way that people focused on the restrictions on getting a drivers’ license photo taken and ignored the fact that this law is restrictive in other ways that do not even touch on public safety (like taking French classes), people are now ignoring the implications this has for civil liberties in a general context. Yes, this is about religion versus secularism and this is about what women can and can’t wear in public, but it’s also about so much more.

If people asked if it were right to tell people what they can and can’t wear in general rather than discuss the advantages and disadvantages of clothing restrictions against a specific group, the debate and what’s at stake would be much clearer.   Unfortunately, all that is sadly being lost behind this veil of controversy.

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