Four years after the Parti Québecois’ colossal defeat over their quietly racist but aggressively secular Charter of Values, and less than a year after a man entered a mosque in Ste Foy, Quebec and opened fire, the government we elected to spite them is bringing up a debate no one wanted to hear. Last week, the Quebec Liberals under Premier Philippe Couillard passed Bill 62, “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality” and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations or religious grounds in certain bodies.
It should be said right off the bat that this law is clearly a political ploy. The Couillard government is up for re-election in 2018. With scandal after scandal rocking his administration, he’s clearly given up on his base and is trying to attract the most secularist racist members of Quebec society who would otherwise vote for the Parti Quebecois.
It is also clear that it is meant to discriminate against non-Christians in Quebec. The law acknowledges Quebec’s history, but the decision to leave the cross up in the National Assembly means that their version of history leaves out the Jews, Muslims, and other groups that have made the province what it is today.
With all the talk about how this law will hurt people, we need to look at what it actually says.
The law applies to all employees of government departments, members of the Quebec public service, city employees with the exception of those governed by the Cree and Naskapi, public transit authorities, school boards, universities, and vocational colleges, peace officers, doctors, midwives, dentists, and anyone else appointed by the government. The employees of childcare centers and government-subsidized daycare centers are also subject to the new rules. Anyone seeking services from these bodies is also subject to the new law.
That means that contrary to the belief that the law will only affect public transport employees and people who work in government offices, teachers at all levels as well as doctors, dentists, and midwives will be subject to this law, as well as anyone who benefits from their help i.e. students, people who ride the bus or metro, and even people in need of medical care.
The law’s mantra is one of State religious neutrality, as the words “religious neutrality” are repeated constantly throughout its text. It requires that all employees subject to this law keep their faces uncovered in the execution of their duties. It also requires that anyone seeking services from employees bound by this law have their faces uncovered in order to receive them.
As only some Muslim women are required by their faith to keep their faces covered in public, the law is clearly written to prejudice them. However, as the law is pretty unclear. People with colds or flus who generously choose to cover their faces in public in order to avoid spreading illness could also find themselves denied services. The government is scheduled to put out a regulation clarifying certain aspects of the law in the near future.
Bill 62 does have some exceptions written into it. People who provide spiritual care and guidance in universities, vocational schools, and correctional facilities are exempt. Health professionals will not be barred from refusing to provide certain medical services that conflict with their spiritual beliefs. For everyone else, there is a process by which you can apply for accommodation on religious grounds, but it is a limited and complicated one.
Applications for accommodations must be based on the right to freedom from discrimination provision in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Requests for accommodation will be handled primarily by the justice minister, who has to decide the request on the following grounds:
- “The request is serious”
- The accommodation requested is consistent with notions of gender equality, specifically that between women and men
- The request is “consistent with the principle of State religious neutrality”
- The accommodation is “reasonable and does not place undue hardship” on the state and the person seeking it has already tried to find another solution
Where the law would force someone to be absent from work, additional criteria must be taken into account:
- The frequency and duration of the absences on religious grounds
- The size of the body the person works for and the “interchangeability” of its workforce – in other words, if the person can easily be replaced, they will likely not be accommodated
- The consequences of the person’s absences
- The possibility of a modified work schedule or use of bankable hours and vacation days
- Fairness regarding other personnel in said government body
More rules apply where the law affects school attendance. The criteria in this case include how a refusal to accommodate will affect compulsory school attendance, the schools’ basic mission to impart knowledge “in keeping with the principle of equal opportunity” and the ability of the school to provide the educational services required by law.
The arguments in favor of Bill 62 are twofold.
Couillard has publicly said that he should be able to see a person’s face when dealing with them, a remark that is not only culturally insensitive, but also rules out any exchanges done by phone or email.
The other argument is one of benevolent sexism masquerading as feminism, specifically that the law will somehow save women from oppressive religious practices. This presumes that women who wear a niqab are doing so because someone coerced them to, or they simply don’t know better. It’s an argument that infantilizes the women by making the presumption that they are not mature enough to make their own decisions about how to publicly express their faith.
This law does not save anyone. It robs them of their sense of agency. If a woman can only leave her house with her face covered and she is welcome at government funded institutions as such, she may feel comfortable going to a public library and grabbing a book on feminism. She may also be comfortable going to a sports center to take a self-defense class.
The law clearly violates the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms rules against religious discrimination and the freedom of religion and equality rights of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The moment this law comes into effect there is sure to be a constitutional challenge to it.
Let’s take comfort in that.
* Featured illustration by Samantha Gold