Tories, Liberals back Quebec’s veil ban

Posted by admin on Mar 26th, 2010

Globe and Mail, Mar. 26, 2010

The Conservative government and the Opposition Liberals are weighing in on the national debate around religious accommodation, throwing their support behind a controversial move by the Quebec government to require Muslim women to expose their faces in government buildings. The legislation tabled this week in Quebec’s National Assembly has been condemned as an attack on religious freedom. But both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff agree that the move has merit

“The law proposed by the Quebec government makes sense,” Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, told The Globe and Mail yesterday.

Quebec, which had declared its commitments to secularism and gender equality, has been wrestling with the issue of “reasonable accommodation” to minority customs for several years. The new law would prohibit women from wearing a niqab or a burka, which cover the face except for the eyes, when they receive government services or take a job with the government.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest says the legislation is a matter of “drawing a line” to defend Quebec values.

Some feminist groups have applauded the move, saying the garments are symbolic of the oppression of women. But only a handful of women in Quebec actually wear the niqab, and Muslim organizations have decried the law as an infringement on religious rights.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who is attending a party conference in Montreal this weekend, said the Charest government’s proposed law is a way of trying to find “a good Canadian balance.” Later, answering the same question in French, Mr. Ignatieff was stronger: “I think they have found a good balance.”

There has to be accommodation on both sides and it has to be “reasonable,” Mr. Ignatieff said.

“The Quebec government is trying to make sure that in civic and public places that freedom of religion is respected, but at the same time on the other side citizens come forward and reveal themselves when they are demanding public service.

“We watch the Quebec debate with interest,” he said.

In Quebec, Mr. Charest’s government has been largely praised for finding middle ground but assailed in a few corners for not going far enough.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois was in the latter camp, calling for an all-out ban on wearing any religious symbols in public institutions, including the head scarf known as the hijab.

Mr. Charest pointed out yesterday that such a ban would also cover Catholic nuns whose habits often include head cover.

Sebastien Grammond, dean of civil law at the University of Ottawa who researches the rights of minorities, said the debate again shows how issues of identity play out differently in Quebec.

“Right or wrong, I think the public opinion in Quebec has reached a point where it .. needs some sort of reassurance that there will be a limit to accommodations.”

Upon hearing that Mr. Ignatieff was supportive of the Quebec bill, Mr. Soudas criticized the Liberal Leader for opposing previous Conservative legislation “that would ensure that people show their face in order to confirm their identity when they vote.” That bill died on the order paper when an election was called in 2008.

Although the Canada Elections Act has no requirement that federal voters must show their faces, those who arrived at the polling booths wearing face veils during the most recent federal election were required to swear a special oath.

Mr. Charest has adopted the vocabulary of Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the two noted academics who studied the question, in proclaiming his policy as one of “open secularism.”

Mr. Charest’s legislation failed to address the banning of all religious symbols among judges, police and the speaker of the National Assembly — one of the suggestions that came out of the report written by the two men.

Mr. Charest has also previously shown a willingness for special standards for Catholicism. The Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended taking the crucifix out of the National Assembly. In their first move after the report was released, all provincial parties, led by Mr. Charest, passed a motion slapping down the suggestion.

France has proposed preventing Muslim women from wearing face-covering veils on mass transport vehicles, in hospitals and post offices and when availing themselves of all other public services.

And Britain’s right-wing UK Independence Party has also called for a ban on face-covering Muslim veils in public places. But the government in that country said forbidding the veil would violate British values of tolerance.

The Quebec law was motivated by several high-profile cases in which women were denied services because they insisted upon wearing the veil. One Muslim woman in Montreal was recently barred from taking French language classes after demanding to wear the niqab.

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