Why Quebec’s Bill 62 is an indefensible mess

Paul Wells on the key reasons that the province’s anti-face-covering law is ludicrous claptrap that makes no sense

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal, Saturday, October 21, 2017. Warda Naili says the first time she donned a niqab six years ago, it became a part of her. The Quebec woman, a convert to Islam, said she decided to cover her face out of a desire to practice her faith more authentically and to protect her modesty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Warda Naili poses for a photograph on a city bus in Montreal, Saturday, October 21, 2017. Warda Naili says the first time she donned a niqab six years ago, it became a part of her. The Quebec woman, a convert to Islam, said she decided to cover her face out of a desire to practice her faith more authentically and to protect her modesty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Before we begin: Look, I’m one of the good anglos, the ones who’ve lived in Quebec (largely in French) (and enjoyed it), understand at least some of its distinct ways and can recite at least some of the catechism by heart. In this July column I walked readers through the Quiet Revolution and its revolt against the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to help explain why attitudes toward so-called ostentatious religious signs are often different there. “The Quiet Revolution in Quebec was specifically a rebellion against religious influence,” I wrote then. “Progressive politics in many other parts of the country has been a politics of generalized tolerance; in Quebec progressive politics was often a politics of specific resistance.”

That column won respectful comments from many in Quebec and a long Reddit thread of the imagine-finding-something-so-reasonable-in-Maclean’s-of-all-places variety, along with heaps of scorn from some anglophone colleagues. Chris Selley at the National Post is still subtweeting.

Anyway, having thus re-established my credentials, I’m here to tell you that Bill 62, the so-called “Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” is a ludicrous claptrap that the government of Philippe Couillard should withdraw before it collapses in court under the weight of its own absurdity. Here’s why.

RELATED: Quebec’s Bill 62 is what Islamophobia looks like

The bill ostracizes behaviour that isn’t religious. Obviously inspired, or provoked, by the face coverings worn by a tiny number of women in Quebec who profess the Muslim faith, the bill hasn’t the guts to say, “Muslim women shouldn’t cover their face.” So it says instead that nobody may cover their face. “Personnel members of bodies must exercise their functions with their face uncovered, unless they have to cover their face, in particular because of their working conditions or because of occupational or task-related requirements,” the bill says. “Similarly, persons receiving services from such personnel members must have their face uncovered.”

This means, as we’ve seen, that if you cover your face for any reason except workplace safety, you can’t do work for the Quebec government—or receive its services—for the duration of the covering. The justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, has said that this extends to sunglasses. Surely scarves, ski hats and beards are a no-no too. All of which is odd, because this is supposed to be about religious neutrality—it says so right there in the bill’s title—and yet no provision restricts any specifically religious behaviour or garb.

It permits all sorts of religious behaviour. Since the bill limits only face covering, it establishes no prohibition against public servants wearing crucifixes, turbans, kippehs or indeed any Muslim-associated garment short of a veil. So in seeking to establish “religious neutrality,” it forbids things that aren’t religious and has no effect on a wide range of things that are. Faut le faire, as we say.

It tells a lie about Quebec. The bill’s tiny number of supporters—almost all of whom say it is insufficient in itself but that it serves as a kind of handy limbering-up exercise for the really repressive anti-headgear measures that must follow—purport that it is valuable because it reminds everyone that state actors must refrain from identifying their religion, because “the State has no religion.”

But the State isn’t Leviathan, the aggregate total of all human activity on its behalf. In a modern democracy, the State is plural. The state isn’t colourless: it has the skin of whichever bus driver or file clerk you’re talking to at the moment. It isn’t dimensionless: it is as tall or short as the judge or cop you’re facing. It isn’t even devoid of political opinion, for its members are free to vote. And it isn’t faithless in retail, only wholesale. While the Quebec government has no established religion—never mind the crucifix over the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, it’s just there for dramatic irony—its employees are, of course, free to turn toward whatever deity they dread or cherish, or to ignore them all.

What they aren’t supposed to do, of course, is impose their religion on others. But that leads me to the bill’s worst outrage:

It reintroduces the coercive State. If the best (and still none too good) argument for Bill 62 is that “the State has no religion,” then it is absurdly out of bounds for the bill to dictate how the citizen must behave in her interactions with the government, on vaguely, passively-aggressively half-assed religious grounds. Even if every public servant in Quebec were made to read the collected works of Richard Dawkins, spayed or neutered, chopped or stretched to measure, issued the regulation skin tone, accent, wardrobe and whatever else were necessary to telegraph the State’s neutrality on a hundred relevant axes of faith, appearance, socio-economic status and whatnot else—even if you stipulate that the State may do that to its own emissaries, then it’s still really weird for the State to require an equivalent neutrality of the citizen.

Here we see Bill 62 dipping into the territory Richard Hofstadter described in his classic essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics: the odd propensity of groups to imitate, unconsciously, the behaviour they most despise in the opposing groups they fear or target. Hofstadter was describing anti-Communist groups in the Cold War United States, imposing the same secrecy, rigid organization and even penchant for falsification that they feared in Stalinism. But Hofstadter specified that the instinct was owned by neither the left nor the right, and that it wasn’t restricted only to Cold War contexts. The paranoid style is easy to spot in all kinds of contexts where people worry too much.

WATCH: Trudeau says what women wear is not ‘government’s business’

What’s wrong with Islam, after all? The Couillard government’s response comes in layers: (i) nothing, which is why the bill doesn’t name Islam; (ii) terrorism, though of course, most Muslims shun and hate terrorism, and at any rate, wearing a niqab on the bus has nothing to do with terrorism, so never mind; (iii) coercion—in this case, the belief that some women wear certain clothes because they know men who require it. Well, ain’t it the damnedest thing, then, that Bill 62 seeks to fight coercion with coercion. A singularly time-limited, bashful, unevenly applied, hypocritical coercion, but coercion all the same. Orwell said some things are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them. Similarly, some things are so reminiscent of the overweening Catholic Quebec state of the mid-20th century that only in the name of purging such authority could anyone dream them up.

The fear at the root of bills like 62 and the substantially more odious Parti Québécois Charter of Quebec Values is that noxious ideas will spread: that the most backward and extreme interpretations of Islam will win converts simply by being permitted to exist. But that’s silly. There’s no perceptible rate of conversion to Judaism in Outremont simply because a lot of Hasidim live there. Muslims don’t make me Muslim by standing near me.

If the State has no religion, then the simplest way to express this principle—after unscrewing the crucifix from the National Assembly’s rear wall—is to forbid the active promotion of religion while on the taxpayer dime. Proselytizing, in other words. If the guy at the SAQ folds religious tracts in with your wine receipt, it’s okay for the government to say that’s a no-no. If your Jewish or Muslim doctor tries to trade a hernia operation for a conversion, that could be seen as going a step too far, and appropriately sanctioned. That all of this sounds ridiculous, because of course there is no doctor or liquor sales clerk who acts like that, is simply further evidence that there is no real problem here to solve.

READ: Too many Canadians don’t recognize the Islamophobia in their country

The Quebec Liberal Party could have been the one to say so. But a characteristic of the Quebec Liberal Party, going back decades, is that it keeps forgetting that a “Quebec consensus” exists only to the extent that every player in the society’s elite chooses to play. On religious accommodations as on various elements of the national unity debate, if courageous leaders would simply say, “I disagree,” there would therefore be no consensus.

The Couillard government having failed to do so, it has fallen to just about every serious commentator in Quebec to point out Bill 62’s obvious incoherence.  Many are doing it in a curious two-step: the bill is terrible, but isn’t it awful that those obtuse anglophones outside Quebec, with their worship of multiculturalism, don’t understand it. We are reminded that France has laws similar to Bill 62. As if comparison were justification. As if any element of France’s relations between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority were worth copying. The enclaves where communities rarely mingle? The very low rate of integration?

Bill 62 deserves criticism because it is a terrible bill. Its title doesn’t match its contents, it permits and forbids things with no logic, it would lead to a government whose actions would be less just and less coherent than they already are. I don’t associate sloppy work with any ideal of Quebec, and I’m surprised that some of the province’s politicians and commentators think anyone should.

WATCH MORE: Bill 62 is what Islamophobia looks like


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