Thinly-Veiled Racism in Quebec’s National Assembly

You step out of the bus shelter as the 702 approaches, fumbling for your student card in your wallet. You flash your 2018 AMS sticker and get on the bus. A woman in Montreal steps out of the bus shelter, not unlike yourself. She fumbles for change in her pocket; $3.25 for a one-way ride. As the bus door opens, the driver notices who wants to get on and denies her service. 

Imagine that something you feel is intrinsic to your identity, beliefs and sense of self suddenly prevents you from accessing vital public services. Your government is forcing you to make a choice between your self-expression and the availability of social services like hospitals, day care and public transit. For many of us at Queen’s, this is hard to imagine. Disturbingly, this choice is all too real for 90 Muslim women in Quebec.

On Oct. 18, the National Assembly of Quebec passed Bill 62, which bans the wearing of facial coverings when receiving provincial and municipal public services. Since receiving significant backlash across the country, the Quebec government has given justifications for the Bill. 

At first, the National Assembly of Quebec said it’s about the preservation of secularism in the public sphere. Quebec Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard also expressed the simple idea that “I should see your face, and you should see mine.”

Yet this Bill — which claims to act to protect religious neutrality — is nothing short of thinly-veiled racism. 

And let’s also be clear, this isn’t a bill about religion, or the banning of religious expression in public. It’s a bill about Islam. 

Bill 62 forces the approximately 90 Muslim women in Quebec who wear a niqab to either compromise their identity and faith or lose vital governmental services. These women are forced to choose between bringing their children to the hospital or removing their niqab. We believe no other religious group would be forced to make such a choice- certainly never a Christian. 

There’s no shortage of hypocrisy in the National Assembly of Quebec. A province which claims to hold secularism in such a high regard actually has a crucifix over their legislature.

Until Oct. 18, Canadians could take pride in the fact that their government resisted coinciding with the disturbing trends of minority discrimination seen in both the US and much of Europe. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

Yes, Quebec has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity that’s worth protecting. While it’s important to protect the French language and culture, the Quebec identity shouldn’t come at the expense of liberal principles, especially not one’s commitment to religious equality. 

While many are uncomfortable because of what they think the niqab represents, these people should be far more distraught with their government telling citizens what they can and can’t wear. Canada’s status as an immigrant nation and a mosaic state necessitates that we accommodate minorities and their cultural differences. 

The test of our commitment to Canadian principles isn’t when they’re made easy and politically expedient, but when they’re challenged and thus we’re made uncomfortable. We must not forget that these women have a right to display and observe their religion.

The response of our Prime Minister — who once denounced the same policies when proposed by his opponents — has been sheepish. Trudeau and the Liberal Party strongly campaigned against former Prime Minister Harper’s proposed ban on wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies based on reasons of inclusiveness. Because of this, we should expect a more decisive response from a party that campaigned against these very ideas.

The simple fact is: the government has no place telling anyone what they can and can’t wear. While a number of civil liberty associations have launched a formal charter challenge against the bill this week, Justin Trudeau should’ve taken the lead of challenging the legislation as unconstitutional.

We wouldn’t stand for a government telling women they had to wear clothes of a certain length and we also wouldn’t stand for one that told men how long their hair can be. If we wouldn’t accept these examples, we certainly can’t accept a government telling a minority group what they’re entitled to wear. 

This bill is politically opportunistic, mean, and at its core, racist.

You might ask, what does this have to do with us? If you care about living your life according to what you deem to be important, if you want to be able to freely express your identity and if you feel that no one has the right to dictate how you live your life, then you should care about these 90 women. 

It’s too easy to remain disengaged on these issues and to feel like they don’t affect us. But they do deserve our attention. These women deserve our attention, and we encourage you to make this attention known to your local MPs.

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