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Quebec's controversial face-covering bill passes

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MONTREAL—Calling it a North American first, the Quebec government passed legislation yesterday forbidding anyone from receiving or giving a public service with their face covered—and even while riding the bus.

The opposition said the law doesn't go far enough while members of the province's Islamic community said it targets Muslim women and violates their fundamental right to express their religion as they see fit.

“This has been a debate that's been tearing Quebec apart for the past few years,” Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters.

“We need to hail this exercise," he added. "We need to remind people we are the only jurisdiction in North America to have legislated on this issue.”

Bill 62 is the Liberal government's attempt to enshrine into law what is considered to be a fundamental Quebec value that the state should not promote religion of any kind.

Due to the historical omnipresence of the Roman Catholic Church in the lives of Quebecers, some activists in the province see the movement for secularism—including laws banning religious expression in public institutions—as the natural evolution of modern Quebec.

The Liberals' bill is not as strict as the values charter tabled by the Parti Quebecois but which did not become law because the Liberals swept the sovereigntist party from power in 2014.

Bill 62 has two basic components: it bans the wearing of face coverings for people giving or receiving a service from the state and it offers a framework outlining how authorities should grant accommodation requests based on religious beliefs.

Couillard said he expects some people to challenge the law, but he defended the legislation as necessary for reasons related to communication, identification, and security.

“The principle to which I think a vast majority of Canadians by the way, not only Quebecers, would agree upon is that public services should be given and received with an open face,” he remarked.

“I speak to you, you speak to me. I see your face. You see mine. As simple as that.”

In Ottawa, the Bloc Quebecois asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Commons whether he categorically could state his government would not challenge the law.

Trudeau responded by saying he would “continue to work to make sure Canadians are protected by the charter [federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms] while at the same time respecting the choices made by various parliamentarians at different levels.”

“But here, at the federal level, we defend the rights of all Canadians.”

Trudeau later tweeted a link to a speech he gave in 2015 condemning face-covering bans, adding his position hasn't changed.

“It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear,” he said in the speech.

How the new law will be enforced still is unclear, particularly for bus drivers who fear becoming the fashion police.

Quebec Justice minister Stephanie Vallee, who tabled the bill, said guidelines on how the law would be enforced would be phased in by next June 30, after consultations.

She told reporters the law also affects women who choose to use public transit while wearing Islamic face coverings, such as the niqab or burka.

“The obligation to uncover your face is for duration of the public service rendered,” Vallee explained.

“Not just for the veiled woman but think also of hoods or tinted glasses.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he remains uncomfortable with the legislation, especially as it applies to the city's public transit.

“What does it mean? We have niqab police as bus drivers?” Coderre asked.

“Will we refuse to provide them [women wearing face coverings] services if they are freezing with their children?”

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