Jonathan Montpetit, The Canadian Press, March 2, 2010
After months of balancing a woman’s religious beliefs with her desire to learn French, the Quebec government stepped into her classroom to offer an ultimatum: take off the niqab or drop the course.
The woman opted to keep her Islamic face-covering and has filed a human-rights complaint against the government.
In a province where the government frequently faces accusations of doing too much to accommodate minorities, these actions have prompted a fair bit of praise.
The woman began taking a French course designed for immigrants at a Montreal college in February but she refused to remove her niqab while men were present.
The college was initially willing to accommodate her, but eventually balked as her demands escalated.
According to a report in a Montreal newspaper, she was allowed to give an oral with her back to the class and asked men to move so they wouldn’t face each other.
The breaking point occurred when the woman again refused to take off the niqab, though teachers had stressed it was essential they see her face to correct her enunciation and facial expressions.
In what appears to be a highly unusual move, provincial Immigration Minister Yolande James intervened. Officials from her department, acting with the minister’s knowledge, met with the woman to discuss her options.
“The government has specific pedagogical objectives in its French courses,” said James’s spokesman, Luc Fortin.
“We couldn’t accept that these objectives, or the learning environment in the class, be compromised.”
Several groups, including several teachers’ unions, applauded the government for drawing a line in the sand. So did moderate Muslim groups.
“When people come to Canada we’re not coming to the Islamic Republic of Canada,” said Raheel Raza, a Muslim women’s-rights activist who has argued for a public ban on religious face coverings.
“We are coming here because we want that freedom, we want the separation of church and state.”
But one Muslim group disagreed.
The Canadian Muslim Forum, which claimed the woman was intimidated by other members of her class, said the move amounts to a misreading of the situation.
“In Quebec people have the right to wear what they want,” said spokeswoman Kathy Malas.
“It’s not a question of reasonable accommodation at all. She was complaining about how she was being treated by other males in the class.”
The woman’s name is being withheld for privacy reasons.
The question of whether to accommodate religious or ethnic minorities, and if so how much, has simmered beneath the surface of Quebec politics for several years.
When tensions erupted in 2007 over a series of highly publicized controversies, the government commissioned a $5-million study to quell the matter.
But in recent weeks the so-called reasonable-accommodation debate has vaulted back into the headlines, much to the dismay of those who helped prepare the commission’s report.
Since its release in 2008, they note, the Liberal government has failed to implement most of its recommendations.
In fact, critics have accused the Charest government of altogether avoiding any discussion of awkward, identity-based issues.
“The government is paying the price for its passivity,” said Jocelyn Maclure, a philosophy professor at the Universite de Laval who served as a consultant on the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
The commission’s suggestions included creating a public body to provide training on accommodations, and better informing immigrant women about Quebec cultural norms.
But others warned of the danger of reading too much into what is essentially an isolated case.
“It’s not like behind this woman there are 2,000 other niqab-wearing women who are about to make similar kinds of demands,” said Daniel Weinstock, who, like Maclure, was a consultant to Bouchard-Taylor.
“These cases don’t reflect the reality of what’s going on out there. For every one case like this, which is problematic, there are a hundred that are dealt with in a very reasonable manner.”