Trudeau on Quebec face-cover ban: not our business to tell women what to wear

Justin Trudeau: ‘I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing.’

Canadian prime minister responds to province’s law obliging niqab or burqa wearers to unveil on public transit or while receiving government services

Justin Trudeau has said it is not the government’s business to tell a woman what or what not to wear after the Canadian province of Quebec passed a law – believed to be the first of its kind in North America – obliging women wearing the niqab or burqa to unveil when riding public transit or receiving government services.

On Wednesday, Quebec’s Liberal government flexed its majority to vote in a law banning face coverings for those offering or receiving services from government departments, as well as municipalities, school boards, public health services and transit authorities.

The legislation has been condemned by critics who say it deliberately targets Muslim women. Others have raised the possibility that women who wear the niqab or burqa would not be able to access health services, sit for school exams or borrow books from the library.

Amid widespread confusion as to how the new law would be applied and who it would affect, provincial authorities said they would work with municipalities, schools and public daycares to establish clear guidelines.

On Friday, Trudeau said his government was looking into the legislation. “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t be wearing,” the prime minister told reporters. “As a federal government, we are going to take our responsibility seriously and look carefully at what the implications are.”

When asked if his government would move to challenge the law in court, Trudeau simply repeated that Ottawa was looking carefully at the implications of the law. Legal observers said they expect several advocacy groups to challenge the new law in courts, pitting it against the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the provincial equivalent.

One day earlier Trudeau – whose Liberal party holds 40 seats in the province of Quebec – gave a more careful responsible, apparently not wanting to be seen as interfering in Quebec politics.

“The federal government has an obligation to accept the fact that the provinces have a right to pass their own legislation, but as you know full well, as a Liberal, at the federal level, I believe fundamentally in rights, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and I will always defend that,” he said. “It’s not up to the federal government to challenge this, but we will certainly be looking at how this will unfold with full respect for the national assembly.”

Quebec officials have said the law – which does not specifically mention the niqab or burqa – was designed to address public safety, noting that it would also apply to masked protesters.

“We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face,” Philippe Couillard, the premier of Quebec told reporters on Wednesday. “We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”

On Friday, a small group of people protested at bus stops in Montreal, with their faces covered by ski masks and scarves.

“This law is targeting specific people and cultures, which is not fair,” one protestor told the Montreal Gazette. “We think it is inhibiting people from practicing the freedoms they have as Canadians.”

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