Why Quebec's Bill 62 is an indefensible mess - Macleans.ca

Why Quebec’s Bill 62 is an indefensible mess

Paul Wells on the key reasons that the province’s anti-face-covering law is ludicrous claptrap that makes no sense

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal, Saturday, October 21, 2017. Warda Naili says the first time she donned a niqab six years ago, it became a part of her. The Quebec woman, a convert to Islam, said she decided to cover her face out of a desire to practice her faith more authentically and to protect her modesty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal, Saturday, October 21, 2017. Warda Naili says the first time she donned a niqab six years ago, it became a part of her. The Quebec woman, a convert to Islam, said she decided to cover her face out of a desire to practice her faith more authentically and to protect her modesty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Before we begin: Look, I’m one of the good anglos, the ones who’ve lived in Quebec (largely in French) (and enjoyed it), understand at least some of its distinct ways and can recite at least some of the catechism by heart. In this July column I walked readers through the Quiet Revolution and its revolt against the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to help explain why attitudes toward so-called ostentatious religious signs are often different there. “The Quiet Revolution in Quebec was specifically a rebellion against religious influence,” I wrote then. “Progressive politics in many other parts of the country has been a politics of generalized tolerance; in Quebec progressive politics was often a politics of specific resistance.”

That column won respectful comments from many in Quebec and a long Reddit thread of the imagine-finding-something-so-reasonable-in-Maclean’s-of-all-places variety, along with heaps of scorn from some anglophone colleagues. Chris Selley at the National Post is still subtweeting.

Anyway, having thus re-established my credentials, I’m here to tell you that Bill 62, the so-called “Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” is a ludicrous claptrap that the government of Philippe Couillard should withdraw before it collapses in court under the weight of its own absurdity. Here’s why.

RELATED: Quebec’s Bill 62 is what Islamophobia looks like

The bill ostracizes behaviour that isn’t religious. Obviously inspired, or provoked, by the face coverings worn by a tiny number of women in Quebec who profess the Muslim faith, the bill hasn’t the guts to say, “Muslim women shouldn’t cover their face.” So it says instead that nobody may cover their face. “Personnel members of bodies must exercise their functions with their face uncovered, unless they have to cover their face, in particular because of their working conditions or because of occupational or task-related requirements,” the bill says. “Similarly, persons receiving services from such personnel members must have their face uncovered.”

This means, as we’ve seen, that if you cover your face for any reason except workplace safety, you can’t do work for the Quebec government—or receive its services—for the duration of the covering. The justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, has said that this extends to sunglasses. Surely scarves, ski hats and beards are a no-no too. All of which is odd, because this is supposed to be about religious neutrality—it says so right there in the bill’s title—and yet no provision restricts any specifically religious behaviour or garb.

It permits all sorts of religious behaviour. Since the bill limits only face covering, it establishes no prohibition against public servants wearing crucifixes, turbans, kippehs or indeed any Muslim-associated garment short of a veil. So in seeking to establish “religious neutrality,” it forbids things that aren’t religious and has no effect on a wide range of things that are. Faut le faire, as we say.

It tells a lie about Quebec. The bill’s tiny number of supporters—almost all of whom say it is insufficient in itself but that it serves as a kind of handy limbering-up exercise for the really repressive anti-headgear measures that must follow—purport that it is valuable because it reminds everyone that state actors must refrain from identifying their religion, because “the State has no religion.”

But the State isn’t Leviathan, the aggregate total of all human activity on its behalf. In a modern democracy, the State is plural. The state isn’t colourless: it has the skin of whichever bus driver or file clerk you’re talking to at the moment. It isn’t dimensionless: it is as tall or short as the judge or cop you’re facing. It isn’t even devoid of political opinion, for its members are free to vote. And it isn’t faithless in retail, only wholesale. While the Quebec government has no established religion—never mind the crucifix over the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, it’s just there for dramatic irony—its employees are, of course, free to turn toward whatever deity they dread or cherish, or to ignore them all.

What they aren’t supposed to do, of course, is impose their religion on others. But that leads me to the bill’s worst outrage:

It reintroduces the coercive State. If the best (and still none too good) argument for Bill 62 is that “the State has no religion,” then it is absurdly out of bounds for the bill to dictate how the citizen must behave in her interactions with the government, on vaguely, passively-aggressively half-assed religious grounds. Even if every public servant in Quebec were made to read the collected works of Richard Dawkins, spayed or neutered, chopped or stretched to measure, issued the regulation skin tone, accent, wardrobe and whatever else were necessary to telegraph the State’s neutrality on a hundred relevant axes of faith, appearance, socio-economic status and whatnot else—even if you stipulate that the State may do that to its own emissaries, then it’s still really weird for the State to require an equivalent neutrality of the citizen.

Here we see Bill 62 dipping into the territory Richard Hofstadter described in his classic essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics: the odd propensity of groups to imitate, unconsciously, the behaviour they most despise in the opposing groups they fear or target. Hofstadter was describing anti-Communist groups in the Cold War United States, imposing the same secrecy, rigid organization and even penchant for falsification that they feared in Stalinism. But Hofstadter specified that the instinct was owned by neither the left nor the right, and that it wasn’t restricted only to Cold War contexts. The paranoid style is easy to spot in all kinds of contexts where people worry too much.

WATCH: Trudeau says what women wear is not ‘government’s business’

What’s wrong with Islam, after all? The Couillard government’s response comes in layers: (i) nothing, which is why the bill doesn’t name Islam; (ii) terrorism, though of course, most Muslims shun and hate terrorism, and at any rate, wearing a niqab on the bus has nothing to do with terrorism, so never mind; (iii) coercion—in this case, the belief that some women wear certain clothes because they know men who require it. Well, ain’t it the damnedest thing, then, that Bill 62 seeks to fight coercion with coercion. A singularly time-limited, bashful, unevenly applied, hypocritical coercion, but coercion all the same. Orwell said some things are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them. Similarly, some things are so reminiscent of the overweening Catholic Quebec state of the mid-20th century that only in the name of purging such authority could anyone dream them up.

The fear at the root of bills like 62 and the substantially more odious Parti Québécois Charter of Quebec Values is that noxious ideas will spread: that the most backward and extreme interpretations of Islam will win converts simply by being permitted to exist. But that’s silly. There’s no perceptible rate of conversion to Judaism in Outremont simply because a lot of Hasidim live there. Muslims don’t make me Muslim by standing near me.

If the State has no religion, then the simplest way to express this principle—after unscrewing the crucifix from the National Assembly’s rear wall—is to forbid the active promotion of religion while on the taxpayer dime. Proselytizing, in other words. If the guy at the SAQ folds religious tracts in with your wine receipt, it’s okay for the government to say that’s a no-no. If your Jewish or Muslim doctor tries to trade a hernia operation for a conversion, that could be seen as going a step too far, and appropriately sanctioned. That all of this sounds ridiculous, because of course there is no doctor or liquor sales clerk who acts like that, is simply further evidence that there is no real problem here to solve.

READ: Too many Canadians don’t recognize the Islamophobia in their country

The Quebec Liberal Party could have been the one to say so. But a characteristic of the Quebec Liberal Party, going back decades, is that it keeps forgetting that a “Quebec consensus” exists only to the extent that every player in the society’s elite chooses to play. On religious accommodations as on various elements of the national unity debate, if courageous leaders would simply say, “I disagree,” there would therefore be no consensus.

The Couillard government having failed to do so, it has fallen to just about every serious commentator in Quebec to point out Bill 62’s obvious incoherence.  Many are doing it in a curious two-step: the bill is terrible, but isn’t it awful that those obtuse anglophones outside Quebec, with their worship of multiculturalism, don’t understand it. We are reminded that France has laws similar to Bill 62. As if comparison were justification. As if any element of France’s relations between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority were worth copying. The enclaves where communities rarely mingle? The very low rate of integration?

Bill 62 deserves criticism because it is a terrible bill. Its title doesn’t match its contents, it permits and forbids things with no logic, it would lead to a government whose actions would be less just and less coherent than they already are. I don’t associate sloppy work with any ideal of Quebec, and I’m surprised that some of the province’s politicians and commentators think anyone should.

WATCH MORE: Bill 62 is what Islamophobia looks like



Why Quebec’s Bill 62 is an indefensible mess

  1. Trudeau and his Liberal Party’s reluctance to criticise Bill 62 demonstrates that the M-103 brouhaha was just virtue-signalling on their part. #VirtueSignallerInChief

    It turns out that Liberals in Quebec introduce the first truly Islamophobic law in Canada, and it turns Justin and his gang into mutes.

    When this is now something that the parliamentary committee set up to study Islamophobia under M103 can certainly look at. Call up those Quebec Liberal Islamophobes and have them testify.

    • It isnt Islamaphobic. Its egalitarian.

      If it was illegal to wear face covering but with an exception of religious freedom, closing that loophole restores equality. It was already illegal to cover your face while receiving public services that require identification.

      People are making up nonsense saying that this would extend to bus service. Its simple, they are removing exemptions for religious people.

      • Well, I’ll admit the niqab creeps me out. Having said that, if someone wants to wear one, that’s their business, as incomprehensible to me as it may be. The only practical issues I see with the niqab are concerning security and identification. So, for example, if a bus pass uses a picture for ID purposes, the niqab wearer should be prepared to show her face to confirm she’s the person on the pass; however, once her ID has been confirmed, she should be permitted to cover her face again. There’s no valid security or ID related reason for her to have to keep her face uncovered for the duration of the bus ride once the initial verification has been done.

        My 2 cents.

    • Most Quebecers support the bill as do most people in other provinces Quebec did the right thing and this should be followed by other provinces.What you do in your own home is your own business.What you do in public instiutions, banks,etc is the public’s business! show your face!The niqub has nothing to with the Koran it is an invention of militant Islam. Canada is heading down a dark road defending the dress of militant Islam that has caused so much misery in the world today remember 15 to 25% of Muslims have strong anti western views.Just look at the hell in Europe and the UK where their are planned attacks every week and armed guards patrol the streets of paris.Islamaphobia is an invention of militant Islam vial the Muslim brotherhood.I fear that Canada is going down the same road thanks to our naive politicians and easy immagration
      system.God help us the future looks grim.

    • thank god the francophones are standing up to this murder cult muslims

  2. Interesting that telling women what they should wear and not wear vary from place to place (burkini vs bikini in France for example) but men are not required to wear or not wear anything in particular.

    It is passing strange that the press concentrates only on what Trudeau says and whether he is as vociferous in his opposition as Singh when Trudeau alone of all the leaders in the last election stood up against Islamophobia when it was a very unpopular stance and while Tom Mulcair was avoiding the topic. Harper of course was driving the other narrative and presumably had the polls to back him up.
    Harper pursued the banning of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies and then appealed the supreme court decision, he also said in an interview with the CBC during the campaign that a Conservative government would look at banning public servants from wearing the niqab,
    “That’s a matter we are going to examine,” Harper said in an interview with Power and Politics host Rosemary Barton…”Quebec, as you know, has legislation on this and we are looking at that legislation.”

    So odd then that no one from the press has apparently bothered to ask Andrew Scheer about his position when his party made it such a central issue in the last election. Do they not think it is worthwhile to know if the party still supports Harper’s stance or not?

    Funny to see the Ontario Conservatives denouncing Trudeau for not being more vociferous when the leader of their own federal party hasn’t uttered a peep. It is even more curious that the Canadian political press has avoided asking for any kind of statement from Scheer and seem to be complacent that he hasn’t addressed this at all especially considering the role his party had in inflaming the issue in the last election.

    • Trudeau is the PM, so whatever he says or doesn’t say is far more important and relevant and newsworthy than what opposition leaders, etc say.

      It’s the same reason that Trump’s utterances get more airplay than Pelosi’s and Schumer’s.

    • Sheer cannot do anything about it. Trudeau can, and should, have the balls to refer it to The Supreme Court for an opinion. But of course, he’s trying to gain votes in Quebec and the majority of Quebecois favour this banning.

      • That is Scheer nonsense. His party is the official opposition with the goal of forming the next government therefore it is important to know his stance and his governments policy especially when this issue was so central the last time the Conservatives held power.

        Scheer seems to have been given a pass by the press and excused from answering not only the hard questions but indeed almost any questions at all.

        • Well he brought in Rebel Media to run the Conservative campaign.

  3. “What’s wrong with Islam, after all?” this op-ed asks.


    1. Jihad
    2. Theocracy
    3. Subjugation of women

    I really don’t want to be killed just because I’m an infidel.

    The Inquisition is long over. No one burns witches anymore. The government apologizes over and over for its past bad treatment of first peoples.

    But Jihad is still with us, as close as Edmonton.

  4. muslims are true infidels

  5. lets see them walk into the vatican & get staked

    • The Vatican has nothing to do with it.

  6. What’s wrong with Islam, after all? asks Mr. Wells.

    So, there are some folks, likely the vast majority of Muslims, who would answer “nothing”. Apparently Mr. Wells is also in that group. Then there is a rapidly growing number of reformers and dissidents who risk their lives daily trying to drag Islam from the horrors of seventh century Medina into the light of the modern world. They recognize that doctrines of Islam are fundamentally at odds with western democratic values.

    That most Canadian Muslims are good law-abiding citizens means that every day and in every way, they choose conscience over faith. Fundamental change is needed. True liberals should be encouraging the dissidents and reformers. Instead, too many self-proclaimed social justice advocates line up with islamists, keeping Islam locked in its misogynistic, homophobic, violent, hateful and intolerant past. In the pecking order of “political correctness”, fear of being soft on Multiculturalism trumps women’s rights or even freedom of expression.

    Mr. Wells might wish to look to the writings of any number of reform-minded Muslims and ex-Muslims for a fulsome and compelling answer to his question. Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hisi Ali are among my favs.

  7. Your face is your identity. It ties you to your actions.
    We are all constantly under video surveillance, security cameras, traffic cameras, etc.
    Bank ATMs, banks, public transit, drivers licenses, health cards, passports, etc., all rely on facial identity.
    Basic human communication is conveyed by facial expression.
    To participate in society you must identify yourself & be identifiable. It is a social & legal responsibility.
    It is really that simple.
    Do what you wish, at other times.

    • Balaclava, scarves tied around the head, ski masks,surgical masks, big sunglasses…..could we please stop being silly.

    • I agree. I don’t want to attend classes with masked people. This has nothing to do with religion and it isn’t racist. It’s a power trip by a few vocal jerks. Why else is everyone so cowed?

    • Currently, photo ID is the means of validating government issued certificates including driver’s licence, proof of age, health card, transit pass, student ID, passport, etc. Obviously there is only one way this can work at least until some other method is put in place. In most of these cases one is precluded from any face covering including glasses and even a smile. Whenever I visit a doctor or cross a border, they compare my face to my picture ID. The virtue of photo ID is that it can be done without any special technology other than production of the ID itself; one could imagine various alternatives such as blood vessels in the hand, thumb print, retinal scan, RFID implant, etc although all require instrumentation at every point of use and some can be forged (I’m sorry, the doctor can’t see you now: all our scanners are down?).

  8. I agree with the author that the title of this law is ridiculous. But the reaction to it is even more ridiculous. I would like to see people have the guts to stand up to the hyper-sensitive fanatics screaming “racisim”. Racism is when you can’t ride a bus because of the colour of your eyes, not because you’re wearing a mask. The government does have the right to decide what people wear and what people can not wear. Just try walking into a school naked. Is it ok to walk into a bank with a ski mask? Let’s call the niqab what it is: it’s a mask.

    • Just the current trend.

      I remember when a veil was considered sexy and exotic.

      • And the govt has no such right.

  9. From what I have seen reported about this law I see nothing wrong with it. The law simply and only requires that those providing or receiving a government service show their face. That’s it, and nothing more. So really what is the big hoopla all about? Some perceived and alleged discrimination against only muslim women.

    So lets be clear about this. Muslim women that cover their faces will still be able to receive all of the same government services that they used to receive before. Just now they will be held to the same requirements of proof of identity that the rest of us are now subject to. And once this proof of identity has been satisfied they may put their face coverings back on.

    This is not too much to ask of anyone living in our country! Our country is one of the best places in the world to live and that is the result of how we do things here. One of the things we do is we show our faces. If these people do not like that they are free to leave our country and go somewhere else in the world where they will be allowed/forced to keep their faces covered.

  10. It’s interesting that the feminist crowd that’s all riled up over this has been strangely silent over a Canadian judge acquitting a Muslim man of sexual assault “because he did not know it was wrong.” That case gives lie to the idea that Muslim women who wear burqas and niqabs do so willingly.
    Unfortunately, this essentially derails the real conversation that Canada needs to be having with Islamic immigrants. The head garb are symbolic of, among other things, Islam’s inherent dysfunction. Islamic countries are largely dysfunctional, with higher rates of interpersonal violence, corruption, poverty, and public health problems. In short, Islamic societies don’t work very well. The question that needs to be asked is why would Muslim women wish to cling to symbols of that dysfunction. Add in that most Muslim migrants have fled that dysfunction, as opposed to merely emigrating to greener pastures. By comparison, refugees from the former Soviet Bloc were adamantly anti-communist. Unlike our new Muslim brethren, refugees from communism were happy to put socialism behind them. Why would refugees from Islam’s societal ills not be ready to put Islam behind them?
    Bill 62 may be an indefensible mess, but there is a deeper and more profound question we need to be asking our Islamic new Canadians, and it concerns their views on how Islam should change to better fit within western societies. Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that the arbiters of political correctness vehemently do not want us to have.

    • Many religious sects in Canada have dress requirements for their female members: Hasidic Jews, Mennonites, Hutterites, .

  11. English Canada is obviously jealous of this law. Religious freaks will surely contest this law with bloodsucker lawyer and the crazy charter. If like I think, they will in court (federal judges don’t give a damn about collective obligation), this is another reason, Québec should get out of this country.

    I ask you if my religion was nudity, could I get in court nude, of course not because it is indecent. Well indececy is in the eye of the beholder. I can assure you that a vast majority of Canadians think that the niqab and burka are INDECENT and IMPOLITE.

    It is well known fact that a society that accept religion are proportionnaly poorer than a atheist society.

    They already don’t pay municipal taxes and have a zillion tax breaks that leads to a poorer health and education system.

  12. The MSM is on the wrong side of this. The wearing of masks is associated with criminal intent, disguising evil, and intimidation. 68% of Canadians want the niqab banned. Why do people wear halloween masks? To frighten. I am told to remove my hat and sunglasses in many places and those items are not masks. I am not told to go into a side room and ID myself to airport authorities (religious accommodation). This is the push back –finally- by Canadian sheeple against a group who continually disrupt the social fabric of our country by pushing for special rights.

    • T”he wearing of masks is associated with criminal intent”

      ,Tell that to the thousands of tourists to Canada from Japan and China. A good 75% of them wear surgical masks, even when visiting the national parks.

  13. You’re absolutely right. The correct position of the government should be that “Muslim women should not cover their face.” Period. Because that’s what we really believe, and it’s gut-wrenching to see a woman wrapped up in several layers of black cloth walking down the street on a hot summer day, a few steps behind her husband (his hair in the cool breeze, wearing short sleeves) and holding her appropriately dressed little boy by the hand. My generation fought to liberate Canadian women and it hurts us deeply to see our sisters living that way. Wherever they be.

    • How many women have to actually seen in this situation. I would hazard a guess of not very many if any at all.

  14. If you want to walk around dressed in circus tent that is surely your right! Just don’t cover your face!

  15. So who is going to tell Japanese and Chinese tourists that they cannot wear surgical masks while in Canada because a large % of them do.