Liberals reject PQ request for discussion with foreign experts on banning face coverings

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, seen in a May 2017 file photo, sais she was stunned by the PQ’s request to stop the committee process and conduct more studies on Bill 62.
Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS

QUEBEC — The leader of the Parti Québécois has returned to one of his more controversial leadership campaign identity positions and proposed a discussion on the idea of banning face coverings in public.

But Liberal members of a legislature committee studying Quebec’s proposed state neutrality bill, which does not go that far and only requires government services be given and received without any face coverings, quashed the idea using their majority.

PQ leader Jean-François Lisée pitched the idea Thursday via the party’s member of the committee, Agnès Maltais, the MNA for Taschereau.

“I have only one word to say,” responded Stéphanie Vallée, Quebec’s Justice minister who is piloting Bill 62, after Maltais proposed a motion to suspend the committee’s work and take the time to hear from foreign experts on the reasons their countries chose to ban face coverings in the public sphere.


Vallée said she was stunned the PQ — after months of complaining the government was doing nothing on neutrality in the face of a series of religious accommodations issues and the new rise of some right-wing extremists — now wants to stop the process and conduct more studies.

Already the committee is advancing at a snail’s pace in its clause-by-clause study of the bill, which has been languishing on the order paper since 2015. The government says it wants it adopted before the October 2018 election.

Vallée then reminded the committee that Maltais was a harsh critic of Lisée when he waded into the issue of face coverings in his 2016 leadership campaign. Maltais, who supported Lisée’s rival Alexandre Cloutier in the race, accused Lisée of trying to scare Quebecers about immigration to stimulate his leadership campaign.

Lisée’s famous quote in the campaign to justify such a discussion was: “We’ve seen Ak-47s under burkas in Africa.”

Lisée later conceded it was not his best moment in the campaign.

In November, however, in tabling its package of ideas on secularism, the PQ included the idea of calling in experts to explain foreign experiences with bans.

But in a surprise move Thursday in a week when the identity issue dominated the news, Lisée and Maltais called a news conference to announce the PQ “shares” the view of Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume.

On Monday, Labeaume complained about the masked protesters in Sunday’s demonstration in Quebec City and said the government should extend the provisions of its state neutrality bill regarding wearing face coverings to include public spaces in general.

The government’s only concession on Bill 62 last week was to propose an amendment to say it will apply to municipalities and public transport companies.

“Nobody should be allowed to hide their face in the public space,” Labeaume said. “For me, a masked hooligan in Jaggi Sing’s gang and the niqab or the burka are the same thing.”

At their news conference, the PQ distributed an information sheet noting France has such a ban in place, as does Belgium and at least four other countries.

Lisée and Maltais described the current bill’s partial ban as “inapplicable” and urged the government to go further. Vallée herself has been vague on whether it would mean a person wearing a burka could not get aboard a public bus, they added.

Vallée, however, told the committee the idea violates the spirit and intent of the bill because it is not about banning religious symbols.

But in a sign Sunday’s clash between the left and the right in the streets here has created political tensions that will drag into the fall political season, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault waded in Thursday as well.

He sided with Labeaume who on Wednesday — in his second outburst of the week — criticized the provincial government’s lack of action on issues related to Quebec’s extreme right wing.

“While they turn a blind eye, while they stay politically correct and hope for the best, the extreme right progresses,” Labeaume said. “And much faster than we think.

“It’s time to stop looking down on people. Stop being so disconnected.”

“Régis Labeaume gave a firm lecture to the lecturer in chief, Philippe Couillard,” Legault said. “I think it was appropriate because Quebecers didn’t like the way Philippe Couillard handled the issue of immigrants asking for refugee status in Quebec.

“Philippe Couillard even suggested that people who were asking questions, who wanted debates, were themselves guilty of encouraging the rise of the extreme right. I think Régis Labeaume said what lots of people think: the fact that the concerns of Quebecers are being ignored explains, to some degree, the increase in the extreme right.”

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