Swift reaction followed Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée’s attempts Tuesday to clarify key clauses of controversial Bill 62, which requires people who give or receive any public service to uncover their faces.

According to Vallée, a woman wearing a niqab or burka would be required to uncover her face to take public transit only if a photo ID is required — as in the case of those paying a reduced student fare. The guidelines also apply to those seeking services in the health network, educational institutions, daycare centres, courts and libraries.

Municipal politicians have said it’s unfair to ask public servants, like bus drivers or library workers, to enforce the law.

A petition demanding the law be suspended has already garnered more than 13,800 signatures.

Montreal’s incumbent mayor Denis Coderre said the city intends to act as it always has, despite the new law.

“We will stay the course. I don’t think the law will pass the test of the courts. As I’ve said before, there are two elements. One, that it puts an undue and unnecessary pressure on our employees who will have to do verifications to provide services. We’ve never had a problem with that before, and the service was always given.

“At the same time, I find that more and more it stigmatizes women, and so it won’t pass the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms). So perhaps they have to redo their homework, but as far as I’m concerned, I have the impression that it won’t be much time before it will be contested before the courts and we will see the outcome.”

The new law brings many potential issues, Coderre said. What if a bus driver lets someone on the bus, but a passenger objects? What if a bus driver has to check the identity of an older woman or a child with a photo ID for a bus pass, while adults with a general pass, which does not require a photo, can board? 

It’s obvious the government got bogged down for failing to do a “reality test” with an “ill-conceived law,” and now the more it tries to explain, the more confusing it gets, said Valérie Plante, Projet Montréal’s mayoral candidate. “It’s clear that it will be impossible to apply,” she said. “The STM now allows people to enter some buses through the back door, how will it be possible to enforce these measures?”

Société de transport de Montréal officials would not comment immediately. “We have read this morning the details of the directives related to the law 62 and we are analyzing the different possible cases related to the applicability of this law,” STM spokesperson Philippe Déry said.

But for university professors, the law is “untenable,” said Jean-Marie Lafortune, president of the Quebec federation of university professors, Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU).

The federation does not have a formal position on the law because “it’s unenforceable,” Lafortune said. “It’s not the job of university professors to act as police on campus.”

While the federation will protect the rights of students and teachers facing the fallout of Law 62, Lafortune said he believes his organization will not have to intervene because the justice minister herself has said the law will not be applied rigorously.

Law 62 is a ridiculous piece of legislation, added Peter Sutherland, president of the Montreal Teachers Association (MTA), the union representing all teachers working for the English Montreal School Board. “We don’t have teachers who wear burkas or niqab,” he said. “But it does put some people in a position of feeling uncomfortable if they wear certain religious attire.”

McGill University Principal Suzanne Fortier said the new law will not affect the university’s policies and practices. “All members of the community — faculty, staff and students — should continue to carry out their functions and activities in the same manner as they did before the new law,” Fortier said. 

The Union des municipalités du Québec (UMQ) said Tuesday it took note of Vallée’s guidelines governing the provision of services, and will be analyzing them in the coming weeks, given the municipal elections.

UMQ president Bernard Sévigny had already asked the provincial government to exempt municipalities from the law. “What we want is to find solutions for a better integration of immigrants, better management of diversity and more inclusion,” Sévigny said last week.

Cities are already dealing with issues related to immigration and religious diversity: Last September, the UMQ put in place a working group on integration and living together that will consider what actions to take.

Patients rights activist Paul Brunet, president of the Conseil pour la protection des malades, said that given the seriousness of some health situations, the guidelines leave unanswered serious and sensitive questions.

For example: “When would a health professional require to have a full view of the patient, including her face? How can the system provide required medical staff of the appropriate gender?” Brunet asked. 

The Collège des médecins du Québec would not comment on the law.

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