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Legislative Catharsis, Part Two: A Primer on Québec’s Veil Bans for Europeans

Date:29 May 2019
Author:Muhammad Velji
Women protesting veil ban
Women protesting veil ban

The Canadian province of Québec is currently debating Bill 21, “an Act respecting the laicity [secularity] of the State," which would ban certain public officials from performing their duties while wearing religious symbols. Although it has been widely criticized as an attack on Québec's Muslim population, the Bill retains significant public support. In the second of this two-part primer, philosopher Muhammad Velji explains how the rationale behind such a ban switched from the logic of “civic-pluralism” to a more reactionary “romantic-conservatism.” Read the first part of the discussion here .

Part 2: A Timeline for the Veil Bans

After 2007’s “crisis” of accommodation and the release of the Bouchard-Taylor report in 2008 (outlined in Part 1), there remained dormant in the region’s psyche a fixation with and need for political action on what it meant to be a religious minority in Québec. The veil bans were and continue to be a therapeutic response to a range of perceived pressures, both internal and external, including anxiety over integration; the desire to be a nation separate from the rest of Canada; and the drive to keep the legacy of the Quiet Revolution alive. It is the Muslim headscarf that is the target of these bans, although Jewish kippot and Sikh turbans have become necessary collateral damage toward this goal.

The veil is not just a piece of cloth, but a metonymy. It functions as a stand-in for other things: religious regression, gender oppression, and failure to "integrate." Veil bans, then, are a “social regeneration through legislative catharsis.”[1] The ban is cathartic in that it announces a new, definitive step away from Canada’s policy of multiculturalism toward Québec shaping its own constitutional future. But it is also cathartic in removing the veil and all that it stands for from the community, thus restoring it to a “whole,” whether this whole is imagined as a return to Québec’s Catholic roots or as the culmination of the Quiet Revolution.

In 2012, the Parti Québécois (PQ) swept into power as a minority government after a series of strikes begun by Francophone students blossomed into an entire movement against the government’s austerity measures. (The largest demonstration saw a diverse crowd of up to 400,000 showing up to bang pots and pans, despite then-premier Jean Charest’s attempts to crack down on the protests.) But it was soon clear that the PQ had betrayed the ideals and lost the good will of the movement that had led to their electoral success. With another election looking increasingly likely only eighteen months after they’d been brought to power, Pauline Marois, leader of the PQ, opportunistically weaponized Québec’s first veil ban to try to bring both civic-pluralists and romantic-conservatives together.

Informally known as the Charte des Valuers ” [Charter of our Values], it included a ban on any “ostentatious” [ostentatoires] religious symbols worn by public servants. This included the hijab, turban and kippah. The word “ostentatious” seemed purposely vague. The ban exempted “non-ostentatious symbols” such as crescent moon earrings and Star of David finger rings (exemptions that no one asked for). The Charter used the language of state neutrality and “equality between men and women” – the language of civic-pluralism -- and the romantic-conservative impetus behind it was suppressed.

Its drafters tried to frame the Bill in such a way that it could withstand the (almost inevitable) Supreme Court challenges likely to be brought if passed, and to appeal to Québecers across the political spectrum. Nothing represented this more than the “Janettes” movement.

It began with a manifesto-like “Letter to Québec Women” penned by Janette Bertrand, a significant figure in the Québec feminist movement, and signed by 20 prominent feminists. They held a large rally in downtown Montréal headed by TV personality Julie Snyder, Martine Desjardins (a former leader of the radically left 2012 student movement), and Djemila Benhabib, a former PQ candidate, public figure, and author of the Governor General’s Literary award-winning book “Ma vie à contre-Coran: une femme témoigne sur les islamistes” [My Life versus the Quran: a Woman Testifies about Islamists].

Those who have studied European veil bans will see parallels with France’s approach to Muslim dress. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I highlight three such similarities here.

In March of 2012, the PQ used France’s controversies with halal meat to continue to stoke controversy about “reasonable accommodation” and anxiety over losing their identity. The PQ’s agriculture critic complained that Québec was losing control over meat production and that while halal meat was legal, it should be the exception, not the rule, on the grounds that “this type of slaughter collides head on with Québecers’ values.”  Secondly, an emphasis on gender discrimination was pushed rhetorically.[2] Finally, the same language of “ostentation” and its inherent vagueness was used unsuccessfully for both the French and Québec veil ban. Fortunately, the PQ lost the election and the proposed Charter never passed.

Phillipe Couillard’s Liberal-majority government replaced the ousted PQ party in 2014, and things were quiet on the veil front until 2017. In January of that year, Québec was shocked by a terrorist incident in Québec City in which a man stormed a mosque and murdered six people. In the shadow of this incident, Couillard sought to ban the niqab  (full face covering) late in the summer of 2017.

From the start, his efforts were defined by their lack of integrity. The move was prompted by public pressure, with 87% of Québecers strongly (62%) or moderately (25%) supporting some kind of state neutrality Bill. It kept the language of “state neutrality,” targeting women who wore the niqab and banning them both from employment in or access to public services such as hospitals, schools, daycares and even public transit simply because they covered their faces.

Couillard cynically offered up the smallest (there are between 50-100 niqabi women in all of Québec) but also the most vulnerable group as a sacrificial lamb to those pushing for a secularism Bill. He seemed to hope that this group could be appeased with any Bill put forward that talked about secularism. Couillard also hoped that the minimal scope of the ban and the fact that all the niqabis lived in Montréal (which de facto would not follow the ban) would satisfy those against the previous “Charte des Valeurs.” In seeking to please everyone, he satisfied no one.

This second ban changed the positions of Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, authors of the 2008 Taylor-Bouchard report commissioned by the “crisis” of accommodation. Taylor recanted his 2008 position while Bouchard supported the Bill. Taylor now took the position that no public servants should be banned from wearing religious symbols.

In an attempt to quell the fear that racism and Islamophobia were on the rise, the Liberals launched a consultation on systematic racism. The consultation was gutted in a matter of months. Couillard was put under pressure by both the opposition and his own party on the grounds that the consultation “would paint all Québecers as racist and amount to putting Québec society on trial.”

In the end, even though Couillard’s niqab Bill passed, it was struck down by the Québec court system and was never practically implemented.

The mood has recently changed in Québec. Alongside sensationalizing actual events, the Québec news media has started reporting on less and less credible conspiracy theories. For example, TVA, a French language television network, reported that a mosque signed a contract with a construction company not to have women on the site during prayer times. This prompted a public outcry and calls for demonstrations from far-right groups. Except, of course, that all of this was false. One year later, TVA had to publicly apologize for reporting it.

Then Québec had its own populist shift to the right with the election of François Legault’s CAQ government in October. Legault won on a platform of reducing the number of immigrants coming into Québec and a more adamant secular Bill than Couillard’s.

This most recent veil ban is still ongoing and is in the process of consultations. Here I will make two claims about it: that it looks to be the harshest, in that it is a blanket ban on all religious symbols from every public sector job, and that it is unprecedented in that it explicitly aims to flout the Charter of Rights.

The harshness is a factor in support for this Bill being down from 87% to 66% in Québec, while the rest of Canada supports the Bill with 46% in favour and only 42% against. The Bill is so extreme that even Bouchard, who was supportive of the previous bans, has criticized it and Taylor has excoriated it. And there are echoes of the same tragic elements that marked the 2007 “sugar shack” controversies (which I explored in Part 1). While it leaves the private sector alone, it punishes those who most want to integrate, who are willing to make less money in order that they may serve the Québec public. In other words, it punishes those most actively contributing to Québec society

It is also unprecedented. In previous iterations, the limited scope of the bans and their framing in the language of neutrality and gender discrimination showed a desire to meet the Québec and Canadian Charter of Rights. Whether they met this goal is debateable, and many opponents of the proposed Bills felt confident that, if they could not be stopped in the legislature, they would eventually be struck down in court.

But an artefact of Canada’s 1982 constitution is the “notwithstanding clause,” which allows provinces to opt out of certain sections of the Charter of Rights. In the past, its invocation had been frowned upon and seen as a last resort: the “nuclear” option. Invoking it explicitly sends a message from the province that they acknowledge that what they are legislating is going against human rights. The notwithstanding clause has only been successfully invoked once and this was by Québec. While this first invocation could be justified in order to protect a Canadian minority’s French linguistic culture and character, the current invocation seems to be nothing more than a proclamation of the majority’s will.

Worryingly for those who oppose the veil ban, Legault pre-emptively announced that he would use the notwithstanding clause in a populist move to circumvent both the Québec and Canadian Charter of Rights. The civic-pluralist character of the veil bans has receded while the romantic-conservative aspect of these bans has come to the fore, making this truly a majoritarian piece of legislative catharsis.

While things look gloomy, Montréal has asserted itself as the main point of resistance. The mayor of the city and all its councillors announced unanimously that they will not comply with the Bill (with Québec City being largely indifferent). New coalitions have formed across the political spectrum to rally against the Bill, with one member of parliament, Manon Massé, comparing those who support Bill 21 to the people who told her to silence the fact that she is a lesbian for fear of indoctrinating young people. Québec’s largest school board has condemned the Bill and the English School Board’s position is that it will not enforce the Bill even it passes. With the notwithstanding clause being threatened, it looks as if civil disobedience may be the only way to make this issue too politically costly.

The first attempt at a veil ban in 2013 was an effort to unite romantic-conservatives with the civil-pluralists behind the ostensibly civic pluralist reasons for a religious ban. This ban was initiated by Québec’s first female Premier, and the talking points were about Québec needing a distanced relationship with all religions after the Quiet Revolution. Other rationales were (ostensibly) gender equality, state neutrality and an attempt to work within the bounds set by the Québec and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Six years later, with the current ban, the talk of gender equality has been dropped (for the most part) in favour of language emphasising that those who work for the public sector represent the state, and therefore cannot wear religious symbols. It has been initiated by a right-wing, populist leader who disdains the restrictions that the judiciary puts on the “collective rights” of the people over individual and equal rights.

But new polling data indicates that only 28% of Québecers have a positive view of Islam while 60% have a positive view of Catholicism. 88% of those with a negative view of Islam support this third veil ban, while those who have a positive view of Islam are overwhelmingly against it. This suggests that the old civic-pluralist view that a ban on religious symbols stems from Québecers’ antipathy to the Catholic church from the Quiet Revolution no longer seems to hold. It is hard not to see this ban as a complete shift from the civic-pluralist view to an expression of Québec’s romantic-conservative view. 


Muhammad Velji is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at McGill University. His dissertation, The Philosophy of Piety: How Muslim Women who Veil Allow us to Rethink Automaticity, Agency, Adaptive Preferences, and Autonomy, explores notions of autonomy among Muslim women who veil. Muhammad is also a Fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization at the University of Groningen.



[1] Bowen, John Richard. Why the French don't like headscarves: Islam, the state, and public space. Princeton University Press, 2007, 16.

[2] Scott, Joan Wallach. The politics of the veil. Princeton University Press, 2009.


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