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Quebec lawmakers pass controversial law-obliging citizens to uncover their faces

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm EST

File photo of a woman wearing a niqab. REX FEATURES/MOODBOARD/WEST COAST SURFER

A new Quebec law on religious neutrality runs contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and will lead to legal challenges, Ontario’s Liberal government said Wednesday, noting that it wasn’t considering similar legislation.

Governments must respect a person’s right to express themselves and their religion, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said as he commented on the Quebec law that will oblige people to uncover their faces while giving and receiving state services.

“We respect people’s right to express their religious beliefs and we disagree with the law Quebec has brought in and we will never introduce such a law in Ontario,” said Naqvi. “I just do not see a circumstance where there would not be a charter challenge.”

The controversial law, known as Bill 62, was passed by Quebec’s national assembly in a 66-51 vote Wednesday.

The face-covering ban initially only involved provincial employees when first introduced, but has since been amended to extend to municipal and public transit.

Quebec’s Liberal government has said guidelines on how to apply the law would be phased in over a period of several months after consultations.

Tabled by Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee in 2015, it is the governing Quebec Liberals’ response to a report on religious accommodation from more than a decade ago.

It follows up on an election promise in 2014 to address the issue after the Parti Quebecois’ own controversial secularism charter – the so-called charter of values – died after the party was swept out of power that year.

While the bill doesn’t specifically mention the garb, it would prohibit the burka and niqab while people interact with the state, but it doesn’t extend to other religious symbols as the PQ’s charter did.

The law will also provide for the possibility of religious accommodation if certain criteria are met.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said he expects some people to challenge the law, but he defended the legislation as necessary for reasons related to communication, identification and security.

“The principle to which I think a vast majority of Canadians by the way, not only Quebecers, would agree upon is that public services should be given and received with an open face,” he said. “I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has previously blasted the law, saying the province doesn’t have the right to tell city workers how they should dress.

Coderre has also raised concerns about municipal employees being forced to deal with tense situations, such as having to decide whether women wearing Islamic face coverings should be able to ride public transit.

A spokesman for the union representing Montreal bus drivers, ticket takers and subway employees says it isn’t interested in enforcing the law.

Ronald Boisrond of the Canadian Union of Public Employees says the union wants proper guidelines.

“Bus drivers don’t want to have the responsibility of applying Bill 62 at this time,” Boisrond said in an interview. “We want the STM (transit authority) to give us clear guidelines about what we are supposed to do when the law is in force.”