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Bill 62 unites Quebec government's rivals

['Chantal Hébert']
['Chantal Hébert']

Chantal Hèbert is a national affairs writer

With the law that prescribes provincial and municipal services be rendered and received with one's face uncovered, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has achieved the impossible. His Liberal government has reconciled the two opposite camps in the Quebec religious accommodation debate behind the notion that it is running a gong show.

A week after the adoption of the controversial law, one would be hard-pressed to find a good word about the just-adopted Bill 62 anywhere in the province's media. 

Even Quebec Liberal party insiders privately admit that they are flabbergasted by the improvisation that has attended the government foray into the religious accommodation minefield. Over the past few days, Quebec Justice Minister Stèphanie Vallèe has offered conflicting interpretations of her own law, convincing critics that she is making up the rules that pertain to its application as she goes along.

Last week for instance, Vallèe fended off allegations that her bill was discriminatory by arguing that the obligation to uncover one's face to board a city bus would apply as equally to transit riders sporting large sunglasses as to the Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka. They all would have to remove their face coverings for what she described as "the duration of the rendering of the public service."

On Tuesday, Vallèe walked back her talk, insisting that the prescription to uncover one's face applied only to "interaction" between a citizen and a public servant. On that basis, most people could presumably board a bus or presumably take out a library book without showing their faces.

In Quebec, library cards do not feature photographs. Neither do transit passes except in the case of students and senior citizens who are expected to show proof of age to pay a reduced rate.

In any event, the minister assured no one would ever be thrown off a bus on account of Bill 62 because - she said - someone who did not comply with the law would be left at the bus stop. The minister's convoluted explanations did little to reassure those who feel that the bill is a discriminatory solution in search of a problem. It is estimated that there are fewer than 300 Muslim women province-wide who wear a face-covering veil.

Moreover, as elsewhere in Canada, it is already impossible in Quebec to obtain government-issued ID cards, such as a driver's licence or a health card, without allowing one's picture to be taken with one's face uncovered.

Vallèe's latest take on her own bill also confirmed the fears of those who feel it is much too narrow.

The PQ opposition is working on a more muscular version of Bill 62. It will feature the imposition of a secular dress code on public servants in positions of authority such as judges or police officers. The party also wants to explore the notion of banning face-covering veils from all public places. 

A Pèquiste government would use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to shelter its law from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Coalition Avenir Quèbec also has proposals that go well beyond the Liberal law. Both opposition parties will campaign on their proposals in next fall's provincial election.

Meanwhile, opponents and proponents of state-enforced restrictions on the rights of religious minorities are united in questioning the competence of the Liberal government. It is increasingly unclear what constituency Premier Couillard expected to satisfy with the government's ill-conceived law.

The premier does have a well-documented tendency to political tone-deafness. Earlier this month, he seemed surprised and frustrated that a cabinet shuffle that left his ministerial frontline essentially unchanged did not elicit rave reviews about his government sporting a new face.

At the time of the shuffle, Couillard maintained Vallèe in her justice role even if she had consistently seemed to be in over her head in that portfolio.

Over the past week, there has been a chorus of calls for Bill 62 to be withdrawn in its entirety. It would be pretty unprecedented for a ruling party to shelf a law it has just used its majority to adopt.

Until it is replaced by a government of a different stripe or possibly struck down by a court, Bill 62 will likely remain on the books, where it primarily stands as a token of political turpitude.

Chantal Hèbert is a national affairs writer

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