MONTREAL — The province of Quebec passed landmark legislation Wednesday that stipulates Muslim women will need to uncover their faces when dealing with Quebec government services.

The bill says people obtaining or delivering services at places such as health or auto insurance offices will need to do so with their faces in plain view. The law covers all garments ranging from the face veil to the burqa, a traditional head-to-toe veil worn by some Muslim women.

It says people’s face-coverings will not be tolerated if they hinder communication or visual identification.
Premier Jean Charest told a news conference that the province was drawing a line in defense of gender equality and secular public institutions.

“This is a symbol of affirmation and respect — first of all, for ourselves, and also for those to whom we open our arms,” Charest told a news conference.

“This is not about making our home less welcoming, but about stressing the values that unite us. … An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state.”

While the debate over cultural accommodation has raged in Europe for years, especially in France regarding the face veil, Canadian politicians have generally been reluctant to weigh in.
Quebec has been an exception to that rule.

The Charest government has faced persistent criticism in the legislature from opponents who say it must take a tougher stand against demands for cultural accommodation.

However, one Muslim group argued Wednesday that Quebec politics was being consumed unnecessarily by debate over a microscopic number of cases.

The Muslim Council of Montreal said there may be only around 25 Muslims in Quebec who actually wear face-coverings. Of 28,000 visitors to the Quebec City service center in 2008-09, none wore a face veil, the council noted.