Muslim women and others with concealing headwear will have to uncover their faces when they deal with Quebec government services, under landmark legislation tabled Wednesday.
In tabling the controversial bill, Quebec has delved into sensitive territory where governments in Canada have largely avoided treading.
The bill says people obtaining — or delivering — services at places like the provincial health or auto-insurance boards will need to do so with their faces in plain view.
The legislation says people's face coverings will not be tolerated if they hinder communication or visual identification. The traditional Muslim niqab shows little more than a woman's eyes.
Quebec is drawing a line in defence of two principles, gender equality and secular public institutions, Premier Jean Charest said at a news conference Wednesday morning.
"This is a symbol of affirmation and respect — first of all for ourselves, and also for those to whom we open our arms," Charest told reporters. "This is not about making our home less welcoming, but about stressing the values that unite us. ...
"An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state."
Fear To Tread
While the debate over such identity issues has raged in Europe for years, Canadian politicians have generally been reluctant to weigh in.
Charest's Liberal government has faced persistent criticism from those who say it has done too little to draw up guidelines for accommodating minorities.
Quebec newspapers have been full of stories where people express outrage over perceived religious excesses, and the opposition has clobbered the government in the legislature over its supposed inaction.
The bill, tabled by Justice Minister Kathleen Weil, explicitly points out that any provisions are subject to the guarantees of gender and religious equality outlined in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In Quebec, the debate over face coverings has consumed a tremendous amount of attention for what amounts to a minuscule number of cases.
Of the more than 118,000 visitors to the health board's Montreal office in 2008-09 only 10 were niqab wearers who asked for special dispensation.
There were no such cases among the 28,000 visitors to the Quebec City service centre over the same time period.
Click to view image: 'Niqab'
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