Oct 20th 2017
HOW should a liberal democracy respond when a historically Christian majority makes room for cultures and philosophical ideas that range from indifference, even hostility, to all religion to devoutly practised Islam? There are lots of places which have that dilemma, but it seems especially sharp in Quebec. Over a few decades this Canadian province has gone from being religiously homogenous and piously Catholic to being quite a secular place with a robust, growing Muslim minority.
This week Quebec’s parliament gave an answer of sorts to that question, and it will alienate as least as many people as it satisfies. The most striking feature of a law passed on October 18th after a couple of years of debate is that it bans anyone whose face is covered from delivering or receiving a public service. Philippe Couillard, the province's Liberal premier, defended the measure with a catchy little formula: "I should see your face and you should see mine. It's as simple as that." But critics say that the consequences will be far from simple.
The ban applies to all provincial and municipal services, including hospitals, libraries and public transport. Although the legislation does not specifically mention Niqabs or Burqas, it is widely seen as singling out the estimated 250,000 Muslims in the majority-Christian province of 8m people.
The National Council for Canadian Muslims said it ushers in “ugly identity politics” ahead of the provincial election next October. It will also lead to confusion. The ban will take effect as soon as the bill receives royal assent, usually a matter of days. But the guidelines on how to enforce it will be drawn up by a committee and will not be available until July. Without guidelines, how are municipalities expected to enforce the law, asked Denis Coderre, the mayor of Montreal, whose city is home to a large Muslim population. The list of unanswered questions is long. Should a bus driver refuse to let a veiled woman board? Should a librarian refuse to lend a book? How should requests for concessions to religious diversity, which the bill promises, be handled in the workplace, for example?
This is not the first time a Quebec government has played identity politics in a province whose political class professes to be secular but retains a lingering attachment to its deep Catholic roots. (There is still, for example, a crucifix in the National Assembly.) A previous government headed by the nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ) sparked a heated debate in 2013 when it proposed a charter of values banning any representative of authority from wearing what it called ostentatious religious symbols.
Mr Couillard, who was then in opposition, accused the government of sowing division. Justin Trudeau, who is now Canada's prime minister but was head of the national Liberal opposition at the time, said the PQ government was trying to play divisive political games to distract from the province’s poor economy. The proposal died when the PQ lost to the Liberals in the provincial election of 2014.
Mr Trudeau has been much more cautious in his reaction to the law passed this week by fellow Liberals. He said there would be “a lot of reflections” on whether the law was constitutional, but it was not the federal government’s job to mount such a challenge.
The new law, which goes by the lengthy title “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”, will indeed be challenged on constitutional grounds. If the federal government does not do this, then a civil-liberties group will. Emmett Macfarlane, a constitutional scholar, says the law violates the guarantees of freedom of religion and equality that are in the constitution. It is unlikely to survive a court challenge, he concludes.
Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, two distinguished scholars who launched Quebec’s debate on secularism with an influential report in 2008, were scathing about what they called the sloppy drafting of the new law. Mr Taylor, a Catholic who is a world authority on the history of secularism, called it a “dog’s breakfast”.
The election will be long past by the time any court challenge reaches its conclusion. It took seven years to settle a challenge to prayers being said before council meetings in Saguenay, Quebec. Further pushback to the new law is expected from the main provincial opposition parties, the PQ and the Coalition for the Future of Quebec. Unlike the civil-liberties groups, they both argue that the new law does not go far enough. They have mooted the idea of a ban on all headscarves (even those that leave the face exposed) for representatives of authority such as judges or prosecutors.
In trying to preserve the fiction that the law is even-handed, Stéphanie Vallée, the justice minister, says it also applies to people who wear ski masks, scarves and sun-glasses. How to enforce this in a province where people routinely cover their faces during the harsh winter is a puzzle the government has not solved. In abandoning his previous stand for perceived political advantage, Mr Couillard runs the risk of stoking inter-communal tension and creating bafflement among those whose job it is to apply the law.