With a provincial election due next year, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Quebec’s Liberal government has resorted to ugly wedge politics around issues of religious identity. The Harper Conservatives tried it with their niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies and their “barbaric cultural practices” tip line.
Premier Philippe Couillard apparently thinks he can succeed where Harper failed.
On Wednesday his Liberal government passed Bill 62, which is designed to force Muslim women to uncover their faces while receiving public services. Passed in the name of “religious neutrality,” it’s a fairly transparent attempt by Couillard to weaponize anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment for electoral purposes.
“You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine,” said Couillard, who has recently changed his tone towards Quebec’s Muslim population. His rhetorical shift is especially alarming given that it came just months after a hate crime in which a Trump-supporting extremist shot and killed six Muslims at a Quebec City mosque.
“I think this is a horrible law designed specifically to criminalize the bodies of some Muslim women and to remove them from public space,” said Itrath Syed, a Muslim PhD candidate and instructor in Vancouver.
“The purpose of this law is to define who belongs and who doesn’t. This law gives legitimacy to Islamophobia. This is nothing to do with ‘neutrality.’ If the state is neutral, then it should stop legislating over women’s bodies.”
Trudeau dithers, Singh takes a clear stand
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told a media scrum in Ottawa on Wednesday that he is “completely opposed to the bill,” noting that it would almost certainly face legal challenges.
“The laws that exist now will be able to provide an option to protect those freedoms,” Singh added in apparent reference to the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights and freedoms.
“We can’t have the state telling people what to wear, what not to wear,” Singh added.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in contrast, sounded a more equivocating note. According to a Canadian Press report, he refused to say whether he felt Bill 62 was unconstitutional.
“In Quebec and Canada we are not necessarily used to seeing a woman with a veil,” he added. “That makes us uncomfortable. We wonder why she is doing that. Is she required to do that? But if you want to prevent women from being forced to wear a veil, maybe you don’t want to be a society that forces women not to wear a veil.”
The operative word in that answer is “maybe.” While sensitivity towards Quebec and its right to self-determination is warranted — especially given the long history of demonization campaigns against Quebec by the pundits and power brokers of English Canada — we can’t afford politicians at any level remaining neutral in the face of Couillard’s xenophobia disguised as “religious neutrality.”
With Trudeau dithering, Singh and the NDP have an opportunity to distinguish themselves as principled defenders of human rights. In doing so, they can paraphrase Trudeau’s father: The state has no business in the wardrobes of the nation.
Quebec solidaire calls hypocrisy
Quebec solidaire’s elected representatives voted against Bill 62.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the party’s co-spokesperson and MNA for the riding of Gouin, took aim at the Couillard government’s hypocritical approach to secularism in Quebec. In a Facebook post issued in both French and English, Nadeau-Dubois blasted the Quebec premier: “Unable to get rid of a religious symbol like the crucifix that hangs right in the middle the National Assembly, Philippe Couillard prefers to legislate on clothes worn by a minority of Quebecers.”
“This law is absurd and impossible to apply,” Nadeau-Dubois added.
Here’s hoping. But even if Bill 62 proves to be unenforceable or is defeated in the courts, it nevertheless represents a dangerous ramping up of xenophobia and state targeting of Muslims.
“This is just the latest episode in a long series of moral panics over Muslim women’s bodies, both in Quebec and outside of Quebec,” Syed noted.
“Political leaders and activists need to condemn this law and the exclusivist ideology that created it.”
Let’s see who shows the political courage to follow this urgent advice. So far, at the federal level, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP are leading the way.