The main takeaway from the Mayor of Quebec City’s remarks on [Tuesday, August 22] were that he was sending the extremists packing (to Lévis or Trois-Rivières…) and that he wants balaclavas, as well as other masks and veils, to be banned in public spaces. Some laughed and applauded; others were offended. But besides the Minister of Health, Gaétan Barrette, few focused on what seemed to me the most deplorable statement from Mr. Labeaume’s long news conference: the parallel he drew between masked protestors and women who wear the burqa.
“In my view, the balaclava worn by a rioter in Jaggi Singh’s gang and the niqab and the burqa are all the same thing…. They get people’s back up. They disgust people. People feel threatened…. Burqa or balaclava, to me it’s exactly the same thing,” said Mr. Labeaume. This kind of over-the-top statement is absolutely scandalous coming from the mouth of the leader of a major city. Especially from a mayor who, barely six months ago, condemned intolerance toward Muslims following an attack that left six dead at his city’s great mosque.
The masked individuals who were protesting in Quebec City on Sunday covered their faces to facilitate their law-breaking. Their masks enabled them to destroy street furnishings, smash windows, take on police officers and even harass passers-by with impunity.
But what crime are women who wear the burqa committing? “The niqab and the burqa are political acts by men using their women to commit them,” said Labeaume. That’s one way of looking at it. But we all know that the reality is more complicated. One thing is clear: the women themselves are committing no crime. They are extremists in only one way—their discretion. No one doubts that this makes a lot of Quebeckers very uncomfortable. But must the mayor endorse this discomfort, this “disgust,” or does he not instead have a duty to put things in perspective? Labeaume could have started with a reminder that the number of women wearing the burqa or niqab in Quebec City is quite small. And before putting them in the same shady category as brick throwers, one could at the very least try to learn more about them.
Régis Labeaume wants to ban masks, balaclavas and other burqas in public spaces. With regard to masks and balaclavas at protests, what is he waiting for? Nothing is preventing him from taking action. It is true that municipal by-laws of this kind have been struck down by the courts (Quebec City in 2005, Montreal in 2016), but only because they prohibited face-coverings in all circumstances. The two Superior Court decisions clearly indicate that a narrower by-law that prohibits wearing a mask at protests that disturb the peace would be acceptable.
As for burqas and niqabs, Labeaume has apparently been seduced by the “solution” adopted in France, where veils have been prohibited in public spaces since 2010. Yet enacting that law does not seem to have reduced the number of people wearing a veil—about 300 cases per year—forget easing identity-related tensions. Who would trade our situation on this front for France’s? In short, there is no easy solution.
The issues of the balaclava and the burqa are fundamentally separate. The first is a matter of municipal by-laws and the Criminal Code, municipal councils, and police; it is up to Mr. Labeaume to take the initiative. The second has already been debated at incredible length given the scope of the “problem” in Quebec. One thing is certain: it must be discussed tactfully and in a nuanced way. Contrary to what the mayor said on Tuesday, this does not mean avoiding the issue or toeing some kind of “right-thinking” line; it simply means speaking and acting in a responsible manner.
As a native of Quebec City and a frequent visitor who still loves the city, I would have liked to see the mayor seize the opportunity presented by his extended remarks to discuss these issues as intelligently as he can. By letting demagogy take over, he certainly did not scare the masked anarchists. Yet who knows how much damage he did to the already difficult relations between many “old-stock” Quebeckers and their Muslim compatriots?
Senator André Pratte represents De Salaberry, Quebec. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the Senate Committee on National Finance and the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
Note to readers: The Honourable André Pratte retired from the Senate of Canada in October, 2019. Learn more about his work in Parliament.
This article was published in the August 23, 2017 edition of le Quotidien (French only).