Rights groups have slammed proposed legislation in Quebec that would prohibit individuals from wearing face coverings while receiving public services as “islamophobic and anti-Muslim”.
The bill, which is expected to be voted on as early as Tuesday, would require all government employees and any individual receiving a public service to show their face, prohibiting all garments that cover the face.
“This is nothing new, there is certainly offensive deja vu that we have seen this debate for 10 years in Quebec, and more broadly in Canada” Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) told Al Jazeera.
Bill 62 was first introduced in 2015, but did not create momentum in parliament.
In August, liberal Minister of Justice Stephanie Vallee proposed amendments to the bill at the National Assembly.
Vallee said that the proposed legislation “establishes the neutrality of the Quebec government and its institutions” with the objectives of ensuring effective communication, necessary identification and security.
It remains unclear how the bill would be implemented and the specific cases it would apply to, but Muslim groups fear it would prohibit women from wearing face coverings not only in government buildings, but also on public transit.
Experts and rights organisations have called the bill “racist”, “Islamophobic” and “discriminatory”, asserting that it is an “invented a solution for a made-up problem”.
According to studies conducted by NCCM, the majority of Muslim women in Canada do not cover their faces, and of those who do so, only a small minority wears the niqab, or the full body and face covering.
However, Gardee said the NCCM has “observed a significant rise and increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and islamophobia” throughout Canada.
He added that from 2012-2015, there was a 253 percent increase in reported hate crimes against Canadian Muslims.
Gardee said the rhetoric by Quebec’s government only “serves to vilify, marginalise and stigmatise a segment of the Muslim community”.
Bill 62, which has been dubbed by some as the “Burqa Ban”, does include a clause that allows individuals to request an exemption for religious reasons.
Critics argue, however, that it is unclear how the process for such exemptions would be analysed and implemented.
According to local media, Vallee said that the bill sets out “general rules that will serve as a framework for analysis of requests for religious accommodation” and that answers to the requests “will have to consider the principles of the bill, [and] will also have to consider the imperatives of communication”.
Shane Martinez, a social justice and human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera that the government “has it backwards”.
“The onus is on the state to justify the constitutionality of the legislation, the onus should not be on members of society to go begging the government for an accommodation under a racist law” he said.
Martínez, who believes the bill will pass, called it “sad and ironic” and said it “serves to play off of nationalism and exploit ignorance for the sake of political gains, mirroring what’s happening south of the border in the US and a throwback to what happened in France seven years ago” when the European country banned the face veil.
He added that the bill and its clauses are “blatant violations of Quebec and Canadian Human Rights and Freedom Charters” and will “most likely be defeated in court”.
According Quebec’s government, the neutrality of the bill is a central component that reflects the widely-celebrated secular nature of the french-speaking province.
But opponents argue, the bill contradicts such principles.
Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said the bill is “a perversion of secularism because inherently it is not neutral”.
“It is actually targeting specific religious practices and neutral would be allowing people to practise their religion as they see fit. This is the opposite of neutrality,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It is blatantly discriminatory.”
He added that he believes the bill could be a political tactic by the government, saying that “Quebec politicians aren’t concerned with having a law declared unconstitutional by the courts”.
“They will portray this as another example of the federal government limiting Quebec’s autonomy on matters of cultural policy,” he said.
“They can play up a loss in court in a way that is beneficial to them.”
There have been several attempts to ban face coverings in Quebec in recent years, but none have been successful.
The final draft of Bill 62 will first be debated in the National Assembly before a vote will take place.
By Huthifa Fayyad