Quebec is expected to pass legislation that will ban the wearing of religious symbols, such as a hijab, kippa or turban, for public employees in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers, during working hours. The only exemption it makes is for current government workers and civil servants.
The bill, titled "An act respecting the laicity of the state”, has been proposed by the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, elected last year with pledges to restrict immigration and cement secularity. Their ultimate goal, stated in the draft, is to ensure religious neutrality with “a balance between the collective rights of the Quebec nation and human rights and freedoms”.
Apart from this ban, the new legislation would oblige citizens to remove face covers for identification or security purposes if they want to receive a public service, for instance, to ride a city bus.
The mainly French-speaking province has already tried to introduce similar rules. The previous Liberal government adopted demands for receiving public services but they were suspended after some groups argued that the restrictions violate the country’s laws, providing for freedom of conscience and religion.
This time, to avoid any challenges, the Quebec government has invoked a rarely-used clause that allows provincial authorities to override certain sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for up to five years.
The government has additionally introduced a motion pledging to move a crucifix that’s been hanging in the National Assembly's main chamber since 1936 to another part of the building. It was passed unanimously.
Although the bill does not mention any particular religion, it has already faced a backlash from some faith-based groups as well as The Quebec Women's Federation. While the Jewish advocacy organisation B'nai Brith slammed it as "an assault on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Quebecers”, the National Council of Canadians Muslims accused its authors of making Muslims "second-class citizens" and hurting Muslim women. The World Sikh Organisation of Canada also issued a statement voicing concerns.
The Liberals, who are in opposition in Quebec now, insisted that the proposal was too extreme, while the country’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also among those who criticised the plan. At the same time, the Parti Québécois would like to extend the ban to daycare workers.
Quebec’s Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, meanwhile, has called for "calm" discussions about the proposal, inviting people “to make their comments in a respectable way”.
Incidentally, full-face veils, worn by Muslim women, have been a hot-button issue in the European Union in recent years. Restrictions on them in public areas are in place in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Austria, the German state of Bavaria, and in parts of Switzerland. European countries began introducing them following an influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere that escalated in 2015, citing security and integration concerns. The authors of a law by Denmark's ruling centre-right coalition argued that such legislation was meant to uphold Danish values and enable better integration of Muslim asylum-seekers and immigrants into Danish society.