A veil-wearing Muslim woman in Quebec can’t work as a provincial civil servant or a municipal garbage collector without removing her face covering. She’s prohibited from teaching, participating in P.T.A. meetings, paying her taxes in person or borrowing a book from the library while wearing her veil. When taking public transportation, she has a choice: show her face to the bus driver or order an Uber.
Canada is perhaps best known for its cheery multiculturalism and its equally cheery prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Yet Quebec, the province where Mr. Trudeau spent much of his life, last month put a ban on the face coverings worn by a handful of Muslim women, prompting a fractious debate over the place of non-Christian religions in Canada’s only French-speaking province.
The law says that anyone giving or receiving a public service must do so without a covered face for “security or identification reasons.” It doesn’t ban head scarves. It doesn’t include the words “niqab” or “burqa,” Muslim headdresses that cover all or part of the face. And public officials have gone to great lengths to argue that the vague and poorly written law is not anti-Muslim.
Still, it’s hard to escape the law’s anti-Muslim intent: Few people other than some Muslim women cover their faces. It will marginalize Muslims, especially women, who will feel scrutinized, if not persecuted, even if they wear only a head scarf.
The law does have roots in Quebec’s history and culture. Quebecers have chronic discomfort with public displays of religion. Many people in the province have bleak memories of the era before the secular strides of the Quiet Revolution in 1960 when the Roman Catholic Church dominated public life.
And the 6.4 million Quebecers who have French as their mother tongue are also rightfully worried about the survival of their language, surrounded as they are by a sea of millions who don’t speak French.
Any perceived tweak to tradition, be it a veiled face on the street or an English tongue in government, is often considered a death knell for Quebec’s culture.
But the rock-ribbed secularism is belied by Quebec’s landscape, dotted as it is with very large crucifixes. In fact, a crucifix stares down on Quebec’s National Assembly, where the religious neutrality law that included the ban was debated and passed.
The garrison mentality and the aversion to non-Christians are influenced, at least in part, by France, Quebec’s colonial master until the British took control of the province in 1759. Unlike the rest of the country, Quebec sees itself in France’s model of “laïcité,” a fierce secularism in which public expressions of religion are frowned upon. France banned the wearing of face coverings in public in 2010.
Quebec’s politicians have long been willing to stoke fear of change for electoral gain.
In 2006, a Hasidic group petitioned a Montreal Y.M.C.A. to frost its windows — the sweaty flesh inside the gym, visible from the sidewalk, was too much for Orthodox Hasidim. Other isolated incidents followed, including a request from a Muslim group to have pork-free baked beans served at a maple syrup shack. From these episodes a fearsome narrative was formed, fueled by tabloid media and some populist politicians: Immigrants were destroying Quebec’s way of life.
In 2013, the separatist Parti Québécois government introduced the “Quebec values charter,” which sought to ban all “conspicuous” religious attire from anyone drawing a government paycheck.
It came with a helpful chart, displayed in subway stations and other public spaces, of an outsize crucifix, a hijab, a niqab, a turban and a skullcap — all types of religious accouterments the proposed law sought to ban. Attacks on Muslim women increased during the debate over the law, according to one of the province’s largest women’s coalitions. (The bill never passed, and the Parti Québécois lost the next election to the provincial Liberal Party.)
The new Quebec ban is popular. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll found that 87 percent of Quebecers are in favor of it. With its introduction, the unpopular Quebec premier, Philippe Couillard, has found a rare rallying point for his government.
Muslims who cover their faces in Quebec — perhaps fewer than 100 women in a province with nearly eight million people, according to a 2013 study — will face a bewildering set of rules. It must be removed in the classroom, though it can remain in hallways or on campus. Veil-wearers can read a book at the library, but must remove the veil when checking it out.
Quebec’s justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, recently confirmed that the ban would include not only Muslim veils but accessories like sunglasses as well. This is ripe for satire similar to that inflicted on Quebec’s infamous language police, which must ensure that English on signs is less prominent than the French. It will be up to bus drivers to not only ferry passengers, but to measure the size and tint of their spectacles.
Religious face coverings are divisive, even among Muslims. Yet the freedom to practice one’s religion is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The National Council of Canadian Muslims, along with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a Quebec Muslim who wears a veil, recently filed a legal challenge of the law, calling it a collection of “blatant and unjustified violations of freedom of religion.”
Quebec’s government has not only opened itself up to legal challenges, it has also put the province in the dubious company of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the governments also dictate what a woman can or cannot wear.
Martin Patriquin is a columnist at iPolitics.