Montreal's mayor raised the spectre of turning bus drivers into "burqa police," in a dispute with the provincial government over legislation forcing people to uncover their faces to get public services in Quebec.
The disagreement between Montreal and the Quebec government is the latest flashpoint in the debate over Quebec identity and the rights of religious minorities in the province.
The public rift opened between the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre over Bill 62, legislation that would ban face coverings for those giving or receiving government services.
The bill had originally applied to provincial services, but Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée tabled an amendment this week extending it to municipalities and public-transit authorities.
Mr. Coderre, overseeing one of the most diverse cities in the country, bristled at the notion of putting municipal employees at the centre of an explosive issue. On Friday, he invoked the prospect of a woman with children in tow wanting to board a bus in Montreal, her face covered by a burqa or niqab.
"Are we going to say to the driver, 'I've become the burqa or niqab police, and I'll decide who gets on the bus or not?'" the mayor said at city hall. "And if the driver says you can come in, will we have citizens who take the law into their own hands?"
Earlier in the week, he also said no government would tell Montreal how its employees could dress.
Mr. Couillard, who faces political pressure to counter perceptions his government is weak on protecting Quebec's language and identity, stood firm this week in saying Montreal would have to comply with a new provincial law.
"This law will apply throughout Quebec," he said to reporters on Friday. "We can't allow Quebec's biggest city, its metropolis, not be part of the same landscape."
Quebec, once dominated by the Catholic church, has embraced the idea of state secularism. The Liberal government has framed its proposed law as one that applies religious neutrality in the public sphere, and the rules on face coverings are a matter of safety.
"For us it's a matter of expressing principles," the Premier said. "It's not a matter of dictating to people in Montreal how to dress. We're just talking about a clear and simple principle: having an uncovered face to give and receive public services, for reasons of communications, identification and safety." Muslim groups have voiced concerns that Quebec's legislation is unnecessary and few women wear religious face veils in the province.
Quebec has been engaged in a debate over identity and religious accommodations for a decade, a debate whose latest legal incarnation is the Liberals' Bill 62. The opposition Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec both say the legislation's restrictions don't go far enough, and want bans on religious headwear for police officers, judges and other authority figures.
"Politically speaking, [the Liberals] are facing two political parties whose bread-and-butter is identity," said Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens, the Dean of Law at the Université de Montréal. "Mr. Couillard has to position himself in front of the French-speaking electorate and say, 'I'm doing something.'"
While the law could resonate among francophone voters outside Montreal, its potential conflicts would arise in Montreal.
"Clearly it will be the city of Montreal and neighbouring cities that would bear most of the burden of implementing the provisions, with all the problems they raise," said Mr. Gaudreault-DesBiens, a specialist in multiculturalism and religious freedom. "From that standpoint, Mr. Coderre is absolutely right. Montreal has to wrestle with issues related to immigration that other cities in Quebec don't have."
Ms. Vallée, the Justice Minister, has faced criticism for refusing to answer how the law would apply in the case of a bus driver and a Muslim woman in a face covering. She said she would not discuss specific cases. A spokeswoman for the minister said on Friday that Bill 62, once adopted, would be studied by a committee made up of representatives from the health, education and municipal sectors, who would "develop tools" for how it would be implemented.
Mr. Couillard has said he wants to adopt the legislation before the end of his government's term; a provincial election is due by October, 2018.