Bill 62 is a xenophobic piece of legislation that is not reflective of the multicultural values upheld at McGill. The bill, passed by the provincial government on Oct. 18, prohibits citizens from covering their faces while giving and using public services. Justified under the guise of religious neutrality and security, Bill 62 is anything but neutral. Instead, it targets one specific sector of society: Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa or the niqab. If enforced, the law will infringe on the religious freedom of these individuals on a day-to-day basis. These Muslim women—including McGill students—will, theoretically, be forced to unveil to access Quebec public services. That includes taking the bus or the metro, attending classes at McGill or another a public university, or getting medical treatment at a hospital.
This law stands to affect a significant number of McGill students—6.4 per cent of respondents in the 2009 Student Demographics Survey conducted by the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE) identified as Muslim—some of whom may choose to wear a burqa or niqab. The McGill community must respond, because the university must be a safe space for all students. To promote values of cultural acceptance, diversity, and religious freedom, McGill administration, professors, and students must actively and vocally oppose Bill 62.
The debate over secularism in Quebec is not new. Since the revolutionary changes in the 1960s and ‘70s under the Lesage and Bourassa governments, wherein the Roman Catholic Church was forced to relinquish control over healthcare and education, many Quebecois have remained strictly devoted to enforcing the separation of church and state. However, these principles of non-discrimination and religious freedom have unfortunately become twisted covers for Islamophobia and ethnocentrism. Today, Bill 62 is the state’s response to recent waves of immigration—particularly from majority-Muslim countries—and the supposed challenges they pose to Quebec’s secularism. What the Quebec government fails to see is that to be secular is to ensure that no one religion is favoured or repressed by the state. By infringing on the religious freedom of Muslim women who choose to wear a burqa or niqab, the provincial government has confused secularism with discrimination.
When the Trump administration enacted a travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries, a policy that similarly targeted a specific religious group, the McGill administration released a prompt statement in support of Muslim students affected by the discriminatory order. Principal Suzanne Fortier declared that the Executive Order contradicted McGill’s character as a “community that embraces diversity,” and asked students for feedback on how the legislation would stand to affect them and how McGill could appropriately support them. A similar statement regarding Bill 62 has yet to appear in students’ inboxes. McGill may rely on provincial government funding, but that is no excuse. If it truly embraces diversity, the university cannot remain silent on or comply with this blatant act of discrimination that will affect current and prospective members of the McGill community. McGill students need to know that their religious beliefs, whatever they may be, will be accepted and welcomed on campus. A clear statement from the university administration is necessary to communicate this, as well as a similar call for feedback from students to the one it issued after the travel ban.
Professors and students also have a responsibility to respond. Several McGill professors have posted announcements on MyCourses, promising not to enforce Bill 62 in their classrooms. Other professors should follow suite. Furthermore, McGill students must play an active role in combating religious discrimination and ethnocentrism on campus. Islamophobia threatens the potential for diversity and multiculturalism at McGill, and, more importantly, it violates the freedom and dignity of Muslim students.
In the face of recent violent threats against Muslims in Quebec and ignorant government legislation, now more than ever, all members of the McGill community must take steps to educate themselves on these issues, and promote respect. The McGill community, and especially the administration, cannot remain silent. Speaking out against this bill and the discriminatory attitudes underlying it is imperative to ensure that Muslim students—and all students, for that matter—know that McGill is a place where all students can express themselves freely. Ignorance breeds fear, but knowledge helps to promote cross-cultural understanding and respect. The stakes are high. We must all take a stand.
The McGill Tribune welcomes anyone who has been affected by Bill 62 and would like their voice to be heard to email [email protected].