Quebec government tones down burqa ban following criticism

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Cii Radio| Ayesha Ismail| 25 October 2017| 04 Safar 1439

Amid criticism from across Canada over a new law that bans face coverings for those giving or receiving public services, Quebec’s government has toned down its interpretation of the legislation as it sought to clarify who the law would affect and how it would be enforced.

“No one will be thrown off public transit, denied emergency healthcare or be chased out of a public library,” Quebec’s justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, told reporters on Tuesday. “We do not have the intention of setting up an uncovered-face police.”

Quebec’s Liberal government last week voted in the law – described by Vallée as the first of its kind in North America – barring public workers from covering their faces and obliging citizens to unveil when receiving services from government departments, municipalities, school boards, public health services and transit authorities.

The move was blasted by critics who worried that it deliberately targets Muslims women and could potentially exclude women who wear the niqab or burqa from accessing health services, sitting for school exams or riding the bus. Others expressed concerns that the enforcement of the law would fall to public workers such as bus drivers and librarians, while legal analysts doubted that the legislation could withstand a court challenge.

On Tuesday, Vallée apologised for any confusion over the new law. She sought to clarify the legislation, which she described as “not repressive”, listing off various scenarios in which it would apply.

Contrary to previous comments she had made, she said the law would be in effect only at the moment of identification. Someone embarking on a municipal bus would have to show their face in order to use a transit pass with photo ID, but would not have to remain unveiled for the duration of the ride.

People would have to uncover their faces in order to ask a question of library staff or register at a medical clinic or hospital, but could leave their faces covered while browsing bookshelves or sitting in the waiting room. The ban would extend to public services such as attending university classes, seeking court documents from a clerk or picking up children from a public daycare.

“These are commonsense rules,” Vallee told reporters. They would apply to anyone whose face is obscured, including those wearing large sunglasses or scarves, she said.

The law does not stipulate fines or sanctions for those who fail to comply and does allow for accommodation requests, with guidelines as to the process expected to be ready in the coming months.

Justin Trudeau, the country’s prime minister, said last week his government was looking into the legislation. “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing,” he told reporters. “As a federal government, we are going to take our responsibility seriously and look carefully at what the implications are.”

Vallée contextualised the law within the province’s simmering debate on identity, religion and tolerance. In recent years Quebec politicians have twice tried to address the issue of state neutrality; a 2010 attempt by the Liberals died on the order paper after two years while a more recent bill by the previous separatist government that sought to prevent public workers from wearing highly visible religious symbols failed to pass before an election was called.

“I can understand that colleagues from other provinces have not been as focused on the discussion as we have,” she said. “But it’s our right to legislate with regards to social issues that affect us. It’s responsible to respond to the expectations of our population.”

Source – Guardian