A Discriminatory Policy made Worse by COVID-19

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion by Toni Steele

This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.

In its first iteration, Quebec’s Bill 62 sought to regulate the ability of Quebecers to receive and provide public services with facial coverings. First assented on October 18, 2017, the cited purpose of the Act was to “impose a duty of religious neutrality” (1). The aspect of the policy that received the most attention was undoubtedly its prescription that those receiving and providing public services must have their face uncovered (2). It outlined that the purpose of this specific provision was to ensure proper communication, allow for identity verification, and to maintain security (3). The policy applied to those working in government departments, budget-funded bodies, municipalities, public transport and school boards (4).

The ban on facial coverings included Muslim religious wear such as niqabs and burkas. However, in efforts to uphold section 10 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, Bill 62 provided a request process for accommodations on religious grounds (5). The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) argued that these guidelines for the process for religious accommodation were unclear, and were granted a stay of the Bill until July of 2018 by the Quebec Superior Court (6). Soon after the official guidelines for religious accommodation were released by the Quebec government, the NCCM and CCLA returned to Quebec’s Superior Court to argue that the guidelines were “inadequate for preventing serious and irreparable harm to Muslim women who choose to veil their faces on the basis of their sincerely-held religious beliefs” (7). Bill 62 targeted Muslim women for their religious dress and subjected them to a harmful exemption process. This view was reinforced by Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard and his judgement that section 10 of Bill 62, that which outlines the prohibition of face covering while receiving or providing a public service, appeared to be a violation of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms (8).

The current status of Bill 62, as found in its official iteration in Quebec legislation, has certain key modifications compared to its 2017 version. Section 10, the section prohibiting the use of face covers while receiving or providing a public service, has been repealed (9). The stated purpose of the legislation has also been modified since its 2017 iteration. The provision outlining the importance of facial coverings in order to maintain communication, security and identity verification has now also been taken out (10). It is clear that the policy prohibiting the use of face covers when receiving or providing public services was deemed inappropriate as it is no longer contained in the legislation.

It is with this that we can begin to critique the policy’s initial intentions, particularly amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to COVID-19, facial coverings are now mandatory in Quebec in enclosed or partially enclosed public spaces (11). The security, identification and communication concerns that were cited as partial reasons for Bill 62 are now moot, as the province clearly overcame these issues in response to COVID-19. COVID-19 shows that the concerns resulting from the use of facial coverings can be overcome when the problem is found to be important, as religious dress and protection of human rights should be. What was the real purpose of Bill 62? In attempts to ensure religious neutrality, the Quebec government essentially made it illegal for Muslim women to express their religion. While the harmful section 10 of Bill 62 has been repealed, its legacy continues to remind Quebecers and Canadians everywhere of the discriminatory policy that it once was.

  1. Bill 62, An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality and, in particular, to Provide a Framework for Requests for Accommodations on Religious Grounds in Certain Bodies, 1st sess., 41st legislature, 2017, http://www2.publicationsduquebec.gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge.php?type=5&file=201 7C19A.PDF. 5.

  2. Ibid. 9.

  3. Ibid. 6.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Canadian Civil Liberties Association, “CCLA & NCCM Successfully Obtain Renewed Stay Against Quebec’s Bill 62,” Canadian Civil Liberties Association, June 27, 2018, https://ccla.org/inclo-report-defending-dissent-state-practices-that-protect-and-promote-the-right to-protest/.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Bill 62, An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality and, in particular, to Provide a Framework for Requests for Accommodations on Religious Grounds in Certain Bodies, 1st sess., 41st legislature, 2020, RS 2017, http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/showdoc/cs/R-26.2.01.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Québec, Wearing a Mask or a Face Covering in Public Settings in the Context of the COVID 19 Pandemic (Québec, 2020), https://www.quebec.ca/en/health/health-issues/a-z/2019-coronavirus/wearing-a-face-covering-in-public-settings-in-the-context-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/#c68128.

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