Quebec's face-covering ban is Ottawa's business: Editorial
News that Ottawa may intervene in the case of Quebec’s bigoted face-covering law is an encouraging if belated signal that the Trudeau government understands that this is not a moment for political calculations or intergovernmental niceties, but for clarity and courage.
The caution of federal leaders so far on the question of Bill 62, which bans people in the province from delivering or receiving public services with their faces covered (read: while wearing a niqab), is not hard to understand. The legislation, passed last month, is popular in the vote-rich province. And, in any case, there is an appropriate reluctance on the part of those in Ottawa to meddle in provincial affairs in general and those of Quebec in particular.
But while provinces have jurisdiction over how to deliver their services, there is of course an important constraint on that power: the constitutional protection for all Canadians of the rights and freedoms identified in the Charter. The question in the case of Bill 62, which seems unfairly to target women and Muslims, and which assumes the state has the right to impose a dress code, transcends jurisdiction.
These are the fundamental issues raised in a court challenge of the law launched last week by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, among other organizations and individuals. And, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now seems to recognize, they are clearly issues of national interest.
Trudeau said on Monday that his government is considering its options. It has a few: it could, for instance, add its voice to the challenge as an intervener; it could seek to speed up the process by referring the law to the Supreme Court; and it could contribute financially to the procedure. Whatever approach it chooses, Ottawa should be unafraid to lead.
The law, which effectively bans niqabs on city buses, in public libraries, university classrooms and elsewhere, is already taking a toll on Muslims in Quebec. Two of the plaintiffs in the court challenge spoke last week of the fear and humiliation the ban has caused them.
And for what? It’s not at all clear what problem the law exists to address. There are only a handful of niqab-wearing women in the entire province.
The “religious neutrality” of public services, meanwhile, which Bill 62 purportedly seeks to protect, is actually undermined by a law that clearly targets just one religion. (It’s worth noting that the principle of neutrality does not seem to apply to the crucifix that still hangs in the provincial legislature.)
Nor is the feminist justification proffered by some in the Quebec government at all plausible. Telling women what they can wear is far from a liberating act.
Of course there are in Quebec and elsewhere people of good conscience expressing their concerns about the niqab and what it represents, but that has nothing to do with whether the state should have the power to impose a dress code on its citizens, especially one that discriminates based on religion and gender.
When rights may be under threat anywhere in the country, the federal government has a clear stake and a responsibility to act. The only reason to stay silent, then, is not jurisdictional, but a fear of the political consequences. In the defence of Charter values, that’s simply not good enough.