General consultations on Quebec’s Bill 94, An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions started on May 18, 2010. Much to my annoyance, many journalists and media outlets are referring to the bill as “the facial covering bill” or “the niqab bill”. To summarize, the bill says anyone seeking, or providing, public or government-funded services must show their faces for security, communication or identification reasons.
The bill is being debated in a public forum in front of the National Assembly committee examining the proposed legislation before it goes to second reading. These examinations will last all week, although it was expected to go on for the next three weeks.
A representative of the opposition Parti Québécois said that the legislation does not meet the standards the party is looking for, and only a full-blown law declaring secularism is acceptable. The PQ would like the bill amended to establish a hierarchy of rights, giving priority to the equality of women and men, the primacy of the French language and affirming that Quebec is a secular state.
Others are even more radical and vocal, stating the bill should go further and call for a complete ban on the wearing of the niqab or burqa Islamic face veils, similar to what certain European countries are doing.
According to The Gazette (a Montreal based newspaper), the Muslim Council refused to take part in the hearings on Bill 94 as a protest.
The Barreau du Québec (the province’s Bar Association), which was one of the first presenters at the public forum, took the contrasting position (available in French only, see note below) that Bill 94 doesn’t introduce a hierarchy of rights—and should not, since, “each right has the same value, and each person’s dignity depends on the respect for all of the person’s rights”, not one over others.
In other words, the Quebec Bar Association is in favour of Bill 94 (with reservations) because it is a reflection of existing Charter jurisprudence and because the bill is not reinventing anything. It does not undermine existing religious rights and provides the proper guidelines to determine under what conditions a special accommodation without undue hardship should be given.
Pierre Chagnon, Chair of the Bar, explained that:
“Reasonable accommodations are part of Quebec’s rights charter, to ensure that the rights of all are respected and there is no hierarchy of rights in the province. That means cases of reasonable accommodation will continue to be decided on a ‘case by case’ basis”.
“While Section 6 of the bill states that people offering or receiving public services must have their face uncovered, it also stipulates this is only for reasons of ‘security, communications, or identification.’”
“There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution because it is dangerous … a case-by-case strategy ensures minority rights will be protected from ‘the law of the jungle’ of the majority.”
Thus, the Quebec Bar Association believes that reasonable accommodation should not be a threat to Quebec’s society or its people. Rather, it should be an embodiment of the existing rule of law, acting as a just tool of protection and inclusion for all citizens without regard to their language, sex, handicap, race, religion, national origin or ethnicity, sexual orientation, political belief or age. This is the right to equality and protection against discrimination in a free and democratic society.
The Barreau made a point of reaffirming the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Charter, in particular, the rights to equality and protection against discrimination. The Charter constitutes a coherent whole, and this coherent whole should guide public policy.
As a result, the Bar concluded that bill 94 protects women’s Charter rights. In fact, the Bar suggests that the bill doesn’t require them to uncover their faces: women have the right to wear a facial covering when receiving government services (except for the specific circumstances of security, communication or identification), and the government should accommodate women who choose to do so.
One more note from the Barreau: it suggests that since reasonable accommodation is intended to protect rights and include people, the name of the law should reflect this positive and inclusive character. The association recommends, “An act for accommodation without undue hardship in the administration of government services and other establishments”.
Tell me, does that make the law any more acceptable?
(A brief aside: although the Barreau, which is an important regulatory body that serves both French- and English-speaking lawyers, believes the Supreme Court of Canada should be comprised of bilingual judges; does not provide bilingual versions of their documents and an English version of their website.)