Quebec’s niqab ban sets up a legal showdown – Experts say new law forbidding wearing of Muslim headdress could violate Charter of Rights
Quebec could be heading for a human rights showdown if it proceeds with a proposed law to ban women from wearing face-covering veils on government premises, constitutional experts warn.
“This legislation will probably be considered a breach of human rights,” said Lorraine Weinrib, a leading constitutional expert and professor with the University of Toronto’s law school.
Ms. Weinrib said although the province has the legal right to set standards for appearances and conduct on its property, the planned law to ban niqabs puts it at odds with Canada’s Charter of Rights. Canada’s Charter came into force in 1982 to enshrine a variety of individual rights, such as religious beliefs, minority protections and freedom of speech. Supreme Court rulings on Charter-related lawsuits have produced dozens of landmark rulings on language, gender, religion and privacy rights.
By cutting off access to such services to health care and education to women who are following Muslim dress codes, Ms. Weinrib said Quebec is “discriminating” and “disadvantaging” people on the basis of their religion and gender.
“Denying people health care or other government services is such a draconian result, it seems extreme,” she said.
Anyone hoping to challenge a law banning facial coverings in public service settings would likely go through the human-rights commission in Quebec – a process that would be simpler and quicker than slapping the government with a lawsuit.
If the bill becomes law, it may see a string of human-rights or labour complaints because the bill also bars government employees, regardless of whether they have direct contact with the general public, from donning a niqab.
“If there’s a lot of serious discussion in Quebec and across the country suggesting that the legislation might be unconstitutional, there could be a request to the Quebec government to the court of appeal to have a reference case,” she said. “For that you don’t need a real litigant.”
The Bountiful, B.C., polygamy case now before the Supreme Court of Canada, is an example of a reference case, examining whether the law violates any part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
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