Canada is Following in America's Footsteps with Quebec's New Religious Neutrality Law

How can we bash Trump's Islamophobia and misogyny while ignoring our own?

Photo courtesy of Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press

Photo courtesy of Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press

Trump demands attention. That's simply what he does best. And most impressively, he demands attention not just from citizens of the United States but from humans all around the world. Here in Canada, we have grown accustomed to laughing at Trump's bizarre Tweets and scoffing at the problematic policy of our neighbours to the south. But are we ignoring our own? 

On Wednesday the Quebec Liberal government passed Bill 62 on religious neutrality, a law that will prohibit public workers (including doctors, teachers, daycare employees, and public transit workers) and those receiving a service from the government from covering their faces. In other words, it will effectively force Muslim women who wear a niqab or burka to uncover their faces to use public services. 

"We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face," Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters. 

"We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It's as simple as that." 

Claiming that we are in a free and democratic society and therefore should be policing the clothing of Muslim women is like claiming that Trump has good intentions... it just doesn't make sense. 

Although Canada is seen as a beacon of light by most of the world, we aren't as free and democratic as some would like to believe. People have freedom of religion, yes, but expressing those freedoms can get you into trouble very quickly in this country. The Syrian refugee crisis and recent rise in terror attacks against the Western world have exacerbate the problem. In fact, Canadian government statistics show a 253 per cent rise in the number of police-reported, anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2014. 

Despite some, including Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, arguing Quebec's new religious neutrality law doesn't target any specific group because "[It's] about having the face uncovered. It's not what is covering the face," there is a clear target. After all, this law comes after a failed attempt by the Parti Quebecois in 2013 to follow in France's footsteps and ban all public servants from wearing religious symbols. When the Liberals won the 2014 election they put forward their own version of the law, Bill 62.

"This is a bill about le vivre ensemble [living together in harmony]," Vallée said. "It's a bill about guidelines and clearly establishes neutrality of the state." 

Shaheen Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women in Montreal, believes the bill clearly targets Muslim women and will lead to their further marginalization in Quebec society.

"For me, neutrality would be everyone believes what they want to," she said. "Forcing someone to uncover, or forcing someone to cover: for me that's not neutrality."

As Canadians we have an urgent duty not just to define state neutrality, but also to define where we stand as a "free and democratic" nation. Religious traditions like the wearing of the niqab or burka are taken quite seriously, which is why forcing Muslim women to uncover their face while using public services means forcing muslim women to not use public services. The same important public services they depend on every day. 

To be clear, we are seeing how a problematic government policy can lead to the further marginalization of a minority group here in our own country. We can scoff at Trump and the United States all we want, but if we allow people in Canada to experience this blatant Islamophobia and misogyny from our own government, are we any better than them?

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