Updated: May 20, 2020
I sit at home typing this article during a period of reflection following a year of activism. Last year, people from across Canada mobilized against Bill 21, a law which prevents people from Quebec’s faith communities from entering certain professions while wearing so-called religious symbols. In our new reality of social isolation and confinement, we must contend with the jarring contrast between recommendations by the government of Quebec that all citizens cover their faces and the requirements of Bill 21, already voted into law.
Let me remind you of Bill 21’s language: designated government employees “must exercise their functions with their face uncovered. Similarly, persons who present themselves to receive a service from a personnel member of a body must have their face uncovered where doing so is necessary to allow their identity to be verified or for security reasons.”
This bill mixed rationales and justifications, shifting from secularism to security, to identity verification, skirting around what I believe to be the underlying reason, intolerance. But the bill seems archaic now; in a post-coronavirus world, can any government authority enforce the uncovering of faces of religious minorities, while simultaneously strongly encouraging all others to cover their faces to stem the spread of covid-19? How would one be able to distinguish between those covering themselves for religious reasons and those covering themselves for health reasons?
Furthermore, security and identification difficulties seem to have melted away, no one raising them as possible reasons why we shouldn't cover our faces to prevent the spread of covid-19. As for the reluctance of officials in Quebec to mandate face coverings, despite the high numbers of covid-19 cases and deaths in the province, Mayor Valerie Plante cited the logistics of enforcing the rule, claiming that police presence would need to be increased to do so. Premier Francois Legault pointed to a shortage in masks to explain why they had not yet been made mandatory.
Covid-19 is a case in point of when civil liberties can and should be balanced with the public good. Given the risk of death and the contagious nature of covid-19, encouraging and even temporarily mandating that citizens cover their faces makes sense. This is in contrast with Bill 21, which seemed to have been voted in mainly because it was popular with the electorate that supported the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). From my vantage point, there was no legitimate public safety concern underlying Bill 21.
But I always knew that Bill 21 and similar laws had little to do with the actual fabric covering the faces of a tiny minority of Muslim women in Quebec; the reason I opposed it is because religious symbols were a stand in for the people themselves. By attacking an article of clothing belonging to a religious minority, it sent a message that their traditions, even their rarely practised traditions, are so offensive to cultural norms that they are not welcome. We’ve experienced this in Canada before; the banning of potlatch wasn’t about potlatch itself. It was about marginalizing, excluding, and even erasing a people.
While I gained some personal satisfaction in witnessing a complete policy reversal by politicians in Quebec, encouraging citizens to cover their face especially while giving and receiving services, the hypocrisy should not go unnoticed. Trampling a vulnerable minority to appeal to one’s base can no longer be a valid reason to enact bad laws. While this time, pro-Bill 21 politicians in Quebec are having to eat humble pie, the next discriminatory law might not be undermined by an act of God, no pun intended.