Less than a year after passing a secularism law forcing certain members of religious minorities to uncover their heads and faces, Quebec is now debating whether to force everybody to put masks on.
As the province at the center of Canada’s COVID-19 outbreak, Quebec is currently “strongly recommending” that citizens wear masks — but the measure will not be mandatory.
Asked why not, Quebec National Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda told reporters: “You need to have a good argument for infringing on individual rights for the sake of a collective right.”
Such arguments ring hollow to Nour Farhat, a Montreal lawyer whose dreams of being a Crown prosecutor were dashed after the Quebec government passed legislation last year barring certain public sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work.
The law — known as Bill 21 — mainly affects Muslim women working in education, law and other public sectors.
“Bill 21 violates the rights of religious minorities without a real or urgent situation. And now that we’re in a real and urgent situation, the premier cares about violating people’s rights,” Farhat said.
“For them, it was always OK to violate the rights of religious Minorities,” she said.
Bill 21 has always permitted masks for medical reasons, and government media representatives say their hesitancy on masks is not related to that law.
However, head and face coverings carry a certain political weight in Quebec.
In the past few years, there have been multiple instances of people trying to snatch hijabs from women’s heads in the province, and only last year did Montreal reverse a seven-year ban on people wearing masks at protests.
The contradictions have inspired wry commentary: the Canadian satire Web site the Beaverton recently published a story headlined: “Quebec suddenly fine with people covering their faces.”
There is precedent for making masks mandatory, prominent civil rights lawyer Julius Grey said.
He said that the ban on smoking indoors was upheld despite suggestions that it infringed on aspects of the country’s charter of rights.
“The charter says: ‘life, liberty and security of the person.’ You can’t just put the stress on liberty and forget life and security,” he said. “I think it would be lawful to require a mask reasonably [in enclosed spaces], as long as it’s not done in a discriminatory manner.”
He added that physical distancing measures currently enacted might already breach some charter rights, such as freedom of association — albeit for good reason.
Quebec has seen more cases of the coronavirus and more deaths than any other region of Canada, but the provincial government has delivered mixed messages on whether masks help limit the spread of COVID-19.
“Masks don’t prevent community transmission?” Arruda said yesterday in a minute-long video public service announcement. “If you want to protect yourself, it’s not the mask that matters. Just wash your hands.”
Farhat said she found the bureaucratic back-and-forth frustrating and hypocritical.
“This is life and death. This is the best example we can have for the government to infringe on human rights for a good reason — and the government won’t make the call. This is really irresponsible,” she said.
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