Quebec’s face-covering law is heading for a court challenge amid testimonials that the legislation has already fuelled fear and harassment among Muslim women who wear the niqab.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Association are going to court next week to try to suspend part of Bill 62, the law passed last month that forces people to show their face to give and receive public services.
In a challenge filed in Quebec Superior Court on Tuesday, the groups say the law is unconstitutional and discriminates against Muslim women. Named as a plaintiff is Warda Naili, a Montrealer who wears the face veil.
“I live in fear,” Ms. Naili said at a news conference in Montreal. “I don’t know what will happen when I go out. I don’t know how people will react because of this law.”
The challenge marks the first legal offensive against a piece of legislation that has elicited widespread criticism for targeting the small minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab. Passed three weeks ago, it requires people to show their face when giving or receiving services in places such as libraries, university classrooms, daycares and buses.
The court battle also raises questions about a possible role for the federal government, which has shown reluctance to challenge the Quebec law even while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he doesn’t believe that governments should be telling women what they can or can’t wear.
The federal Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, said on Tuesday the government is committed to “upholding the rights of all Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
“We are aware that an application has been filed in Quebec and we are reviewing it carefully,” the Justice Minister said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
While the Quebec Liberal government of Philippe Couillard says the goal of Bill 62 is religious neutrality, the court challenge says the legislation does the opposite.
“[Bill 62] gravely infringes the religious and equality rights of certain Muslim women in Quebec,” the court filing says.
“It imposes a significant burden on the exercise of religious freedom, and it does so in a discriminatory manner that will isolate some Quebec residents, making it much more difficult for them to participate in Quebec society.”
The lawsuit names Ms. Naili – a convert to Islam who was born Marie-Michelle Lacoste – as well as Fatima Ahmad, a McGill University student who wears a niqab and hopes to become a teacher. In Ms. Ahmad’s sworn statement, she says the law has already had repercussions on her life.
She said she avoids taking public transit for fear of being turned away or being asked to remove her niqab. She has experienced “an increase in Islamophobic and aggressive remarks” on the street and avoids leaving her house except to attend class, her statement says.
She is also concerned that she will have to leave Quebec after graduation, since the law would bar her from working as a teacher in the province. Ms. Ahmad, who grew up in a Muslim family, said she began wearing the niqab about a year ago after receiving one as a gift, and the decision to wear it was hers alone.
The groups involved in the court challenge say Bill 62 was adopted against the backdrop of a documented surge in hate crimes against Muslim Canadians; such crimes spiked 61 per cent between 2014 and 2015, according to the most recent Statistics Canada figures. The groups also noted the approach of the first anniversary of the shootings at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City that took the lives of six Muslim worshippers.
In Quebec City on Tuesday, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said she was confident that Bill 62 would stand up to a court challenge. “It’s a law that can be justified in a free and democratic society like Quebec,” she said.
The groups are seeking to suspend the application of part of Bill 62 – the portion dealing with uncovering one’s face – until a full constitutional challenge is heard. They hope the court will agree to hear their arguments next Wednesday.