To understand why Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard chose to defy his own beliefs and risk his province's international reputation by pressing ahead with a ban on religious face coverings, you must begin with the premise that doing nothing was not an option.
For more than a decade now, Quebec has been in the throes of a relentless debate about the challenges posed to its secularist society by the arrival of thousands of new immigrants belonging to religious minorities in general and one religious minority in particular. Without action to establish the primacy of secularism, this unfinished business risked monopolizing Quebec politics ad nauseam. Mr. Couillard sees the niqab ban as the least invasive way of bookending this debate.
As one former senior provincial cabinet minister explained it to me, a majority of francophone Quebeckers has felt extremely unsettled by the renewed incursion of religion into the public domain. Quebeckers fought to rid their polity of the insidious influence of the Catholic Church. This has instilled in them a zero-tolerance attitude toward the state's condoning of any religion. The government's failure to act remained an itch Quebeckers could not resist scratching.
Appreciating this context is not to absolve Mr. Couillard of the charges he now faces of giving in to xenophobia. But from the Premier's perspective, last week's adoption of Bill 62 establishing the religious neutrality of the state is a compromise aimed at pre-empting calls for an even wider ban on religious symbols in the public domain. While the new law made international headlines for banning all face coverings when receiving or granting public services, Bill 62 also sets out a legal framework for religious accommodation. It is this latter aspect that Mr. Couillard hopes will quell Quebeckers' anxiety about a religious free-for-all.
It's anyone's guess whether it will work. The opposition Coalition Avenir Québec and Parti Québécois, whose MNAs all voted against Bill 62, continue to depict the new law as a cowardly act of abdication that will institutionalize religious accommodation. A woman who wears the niqab or burka, the opposition says, will need to only apply once for an exemption from the requirement to show one's face to be permanently free from having to lift her veil.
"Apart from Batman and Spider-Man, all those who have religious reasons will be able to have their face covered," PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée charged. "So, [the law] is a farce."
The opposition is united in calling for a ban on the wearing of religious symbols by all state employees in a position of authority, including police officers and teachers. The question now is whether calls for further action will resonate with voters or whether Quebeckers will feel Mr. Couillard has gone far enough. With an election less than a year away, Mr. Couillard is dearly hoping it's the latter.
The rest of Canada must understand that the debate about religious accommodation in Quebec is informed by developments in Europe, where bans on wearing religious symbols in public institutions are widespread. Hence, the suggestion that this is an open-and-shut case of religious freedom does not carry as much weight in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada. European courts have consistently upheld bans on religious symbols – including the hijab and kippa – in public institutions.
France – where the veil has been banned in schools since 2004 and where the niqab and burka were banned in all public spaces in 2011 – remains the primary reference for Quebec. And the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French niqab/burka ban in 2014 on the grounds that the requirement to show one's face in public fell under "the respect for the minimum requirements of life in society."
This is Canada, however, and Mr. Couillard seems to have doubts himself about Bill 62's constitutionality, saying he expects the law's fate to be decided by the courts. That is unlikely before the next election, since many of the law's regulations won't be enacted until July 1.
If the courts do strike down Bill 62 as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it could either bury the issue once and for all or create a nasty backlash. While the courts could deem the law inconsistent with both the Quebec and Canadian rights charters, Quebec could always amend its own human-rights code. But opposition politicians would depict the Canadian constitution as an impediment to Quebec's desire to protect its secular identity.
Mr. Couillard might not be the last premier, then, to inherit this career-killing file.