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Quebec passes law banning people with face coverings from getting public services

The Canadian province is barring public workers from wearing the niqab or burqa and obliging citizens to unveil while using public transit or government services

19 October 2017, 9:20am
'We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face', said Philippe Couillard
'We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face', said Philippe Couillard
Quebec has passed a sweeping ban on face coverings – barring public workers and citizens from wearing the niqab or burqa, when seeking government services or riding public transit.

This law is believed to be the first of its kind in North America.

The legislation was adopted on Wednesday, which has since been condemned by critics, who say it deliberately targets Muslim women and will fuel the debate on identity, religion and tolerance.

The liberal government’s bill on religious neutrality was passed in Quebec’s National Assembly, reported the CBC.

Premier Philippe Couillard of Quebec, said: "We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face”. He added “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”.

The law was originally meant to ban face coverings for those offering or receiving services from government departments and provincially funded institutions, such as universities. In August, however, the legislation was extended to apply to municipalities, school boards, public health services and transit authorities, raising the possibility that woman wearing a niqab, which covers the woman’s entire face except the area around the eyes, or a burqa, which covers the woman’s entire face and has a mesh over the eyes, in Quebec, would not be able to take the metro or ride the city bus.

“As long as the service is being rendered, the face should be uncovered”, said Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée.

Vallée said Bill 62 doesn't specifically target religious symbols, as the law would also apply to masked protesters.

"We're talking about having the face uncovered. It's not what is covering the face," she said. “We are not legislating on clothing”, she added.

The niqab and burka are not mentioned in the legislation, according to CBC. But the debate over the bill has turned to what would happen to Muslim women wearing a niqab or a burqa who ride on public transit.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims slammed the bill's passage, saying it "boils down to ugly identity politics" before the provincial election next year.

"By tabling this discriminatory legislation, the Quebec government is advancing a dangerous political agenda on the backs of minorities," said the rights group executive director, Ihsaan Gardee, in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while the federal government does not interfere with provincial laws and the rights of all Canadians should be “respected”.

France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil officially in 2010. Bans are also in place in Belgium and some parts of Switzerland, while other European countries have debated the issue.

In the US, a Georgia legislator withdrew a bill last year, which would have banned women from wearing burqas or veils whilst driving, or when their driver’s license photos were taken.