Quebec’s recently-passed Bill 62, which bans the wearing of niqabs and other face coverings to people both providing and receiving government services, could ultimately threaten the safety of the province’s Muslims, say Quebec’s Anglican and Lutheran bishops.
“To be secular means to be pluralistic, allowing freedom of belief both in one’s private and public life,” says Mary Irwin-Gibson, Anglican bishop of Montreal; Bruce Myers, Anglican bishop of Quebec; and Michael Pryse, bishop of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada [ELCIC] in a joint statement released Monday, October 30. “The provisions of Bill 62, however they are applied, unnecessarily put that fundamental freedom—and potentially people’s security—at risk.”
The bishops say that although the law was “veiled as a question of identification and security,” it in fact “implicitly targets” Muslims, whose religious freedom is guaranteed in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Just when Quebecers are turning to their governments and other public institutions to protect vulnerable minorities—in the wake of threatening or violent incidents like the January 29 shooting at Quebec City’s Grand Mosque—Bill 62 is helping foster “a climate of suspicion and fear” that threatens the safety of Quebec Muslims, the bishops say.
“We invite our elected leaders, and all Quebecers, to join us in trying to foster a safe and welcoming environment for all who make Quebec their home, whatever their culture or religion,” the bishops’ statement concludes.
Six people were killed and 19 injured, several of them children, when a gunman started shooting at worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City January 29.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Myers said the three bishops were moved to issue the statement by worries about a tendency in the province “to treat the Muslim minority…with fear and suspicion”—a worry that was heightened by the passing of Bill 62 October 18.
“We felt there was a real need for a response of some kind in the face of this,” Myers said. “Our fear is that it may be creating further problems for an already vulnerable minority…This is not the time for our government to be creating new opportunities for Quebec’s Muslims to become targets.”
Recent world trends and events have shown that the words and deeds of policy-makers can have an effect on the behaviour of individuals, Myers said. In the United States, for example, a “quantifiable rise in violence of different kinds, and aggression against minority groups,” he said, is being attributed by some people to the “tone and conduct” of current President Donald Trump.
While it would probably be difficult to draw a one-to-one connection between a law like Bill 62 and violent or threatening acts against minorities, Myers said, it’s fair to say that such legislation contributes to “a climate where it’s somehow OK to not just be suspicious of, but to be hostile against, a visibly different group of people in our midst.”
The bill’s official title describes it as intended “to foster adherence to State religious neutrality.” But Myers called it “a solution in search of a problem,” since the total number of Muslim women in Quebec who wear face-covering niqabs or burqas is unlikely to be more than 100, out of a province of 8 million.
Asked if the bishops thought the law should be repealed, Myers said, “We’re looking ahead to a provincial election next year, and that [joint statement] was framed as an invitation, because I think we would like to encourage a different kind of discourse in the public square on these kinds of questions.”
It’s not likely opposition parties in the province would support a repeal of the law, he said, because the position of the two main opposition parties is that the bill does not go far enough.
After widespread criticism of the law, Quebec’s justice minister Stéphanie Vallée “clarified” that people with face coverings must remove them only during the time when a government service provider actually needs to check their photo identification for certain public services, such as public transport, checking out library books or registering at a clinic or hospital.
In defense of Bill 62, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said it was intended to promote safety and openness.
“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 said. “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.”