In March 2015, Justin Trudeau delivered a speech at the Royal York in Toronto that oscillated from inspiring to bombastic to schmaltzy. There is one point, however, he made forcefully. “The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] might protect us from our government, but it doesn’t always protect us from each other,” he told the crowd. “Canadian liberty might be protected by the constitution, but it must be promoted by political leadership.”
But that leadership, today, appears in short supply. The aspirations Trudeau vaunted in that speech, hailed then as a brave political stance for the young leader, now seem to come second to the political reality he is facing in Quebec, with its introduction of Bill 62—a controversial religious-neutrality bill that will force citizens to uncover their faces while providing and receiving public services—a law drawn up to target Muslim women.
Trudeau’s words two years ago were a thinly veiled threat to Quebec premier Pauline Marois and Prime Minister Stephen Harper—currently, both out of the job—over their plans to limit the right of women to wear the niqab or burqa. “Those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn,” Trudeau warned.
Harper’s ban on face coverings at immigration ceremonies was struck down by the courts, while his plan to enact a similar ban on federal public servants was thwarted by his election loss. Politically hobbled by the constant fighting against her own government—from within and from outside—Marois’s so-called “charter of values” never came into force. Even Marois’s own supporters appeared to be turned off by her party’s xenophobic messaging and iconography on the campaign trail.
Many thought the issue dead and gone. Few expected Marois’s Liberal successor, Philippe Couillard, to actually follow through on his half-hearted promise to adopt his own, weaker, values charter. Even after his government introduced Bill 62, many saw the plan to ban face coverings for both public servants and those seeking public services to be an unlikely priority for the Liberal government. Even its title seemed laughably improbable: An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality and, in Particular, to Provide a Framework for Requests for Accommodations on Religious Grounds in Certain Bodies.
And yet, the bill passed the Assembly National on October 18. The regulations putting weight behind it were introduced on Tuesday. Confusion has reigned over exactly what the bill does. It maintains that employees of government institutions—school board and hospital staff, elected officials, teachers, and bureaucrats—“must exercise their functions with their face uncovered” and that “similarly, persons receiving services from such personnel members must have their face uncovered.”
Once the bill, improbably, became law, does it now apply to Quebecers who ride public transit? Are women who freely choose to support religious garb to be denied welfare? Denied the right to marry? An attempt to clarify the bill Tuesday only heaped more confusion onto the pile. “This law affirms the religious neutrality of the state in order to assure respectful treatment of the rights and liberties of individuals,” contended the justice ministry in a release. The law would neither “favor nor disadvantage” a person due to their religious beliefs.
The ministry provided some examples. It reads that a bus driver “could demand that someone uncover their face in order to verify the validity of their transit pass if, per the regulations of the transportation society, it comes with a photo.” But, it adds, this wouldn’t apply to the Montreal metro, “where there is no interaction with an employee.”
At the doctor’s office, a patient will need to remove their face covering in order to communicate with the doctor, but they can remain covered in the waiting room. A student or professor cannot wear a niqab or burqa where communication is necessary between them. At a nursery, a parent must uncover themselves before picking up their child.
Montreal mayor Denis Coderre has said he will not apply the law. (Valerie Plante, his challenger in the ongoing municipal elections, has come out against the bill but has not said whether she’ll block its application in the city.) Demonstrations have started, with protesters wearing surgical masks and scarves taking to the streets. Yet that opposition is without real allies at the federal level. Sure, a line of politicians have stepped into the foyer of the House of Commons to deplore the law as racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, dangerous for religious freedom, harmful to civil liberties, and contrary to Canadian values themselves. Yet not a single one promised to do anything about it.
Transport minister Marc Garneau, who represents a riding on the Montreal island, boasted to reporters this week that “we don’t believe that it’s up to us to tell a woman how to dress” but he affixed a caveat: “This is a law from the National Assembly. We will not interfere.”
Jagmeet Singh, the freshly installed federal NDP leader who gambled in his own bid for leader on calling out this Quebec’s legislation, has declined to take his criticisms further. He says he would stand opposed to the bill but would let Quebec’s own court system handle the challenges.