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Quebec rights body rules against veil in health-card case

David Boily/La Presse/David Boily

Quebec's Health Insurance Board has no obligation to accommodate demands made by women who wear the niqab according to the province's Human Rights Commission.

If a woman wearing a niqab requests that she be served by a woman rather than a man in the identification process to obtain a health insurance card, officials can refuse her request because according to the Human Rights Commission the client's religious rights aren't being violated in any "significant" way.

Up until last October, the province's health board was accommodating a veiled woman's request to be served by a woman. The directive was viewed as a violation of the equality between men and women by some critics who considered the niqab a symbol of a woman's submission and exploitation. The board requested the commission's advice on how to handle such cases in the future.

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The commission ruled that wearing the niqab did not always necessarily have a religious meaning. It also believed that equality rights should overweigh demands of those who insisted on wearing the niqab when being served by a public institution.

"When equality is being considered when defining standards and directives it must make it possible to respect the right to equality," the commission observed. "Since freedom of religion was not significantly undermined, there is no obligation to grant an accommodation."

During 118,000 visits to the health board's Montreal office in 2008-2009, ten clients wearing the niqab made a request for reasonable accommodation. They wanted to be served by a woman during the identification process and the photo session needed to prepare their health insurance card.

The commission also issued an opinion on two other separate cases involving the health board's treatment of clients. In both cases the commission rejected accommodating special demands by certain clients.

In the first case involving a client who refused to be served by an employee who was part of a visible minority, the commission concluded that the client's request was "discriminatory and infringed on the dignity of the health insurance board's employee."

In the other case of a client who refused to be served by an employee wearing a hidjab, the commission ruled that the wearing of the veil, even for religious reasons, had no bearing on the delivery of services. The incident reflected more a clash of values rather than an infringement on the client's freedom of religion.

"It cannot be concluded that the neutrality of the public institution was called into question because the service being delivered remained neutral," the commission concluded.

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