Montreal protesters don surgical masks, scarves over new face-covering law

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Quebec justice minister defends new face-covering law, to release guidelines this week

Protesters wearing surgical masks and scarves over their faces lined up Friday along a Montreal bus route to rally against a new law that would force anyone using public services, including Muslim women wearing a niqab or burka, to uncover their faces.

Bill 62, passed on Wednesday in Quebec's National Assembly, prohibits public-sector employees — including doctors, teachers and daycare employees — from covering their faces.

It also obliges anyone seeking public services like taking public transit to have uncovered faces.

- EXPLAINER | What you need to know about Quebec's religious neutrality legislation

The demonstration against the law was organized along the 80 bus route on Parc Avenue during morning rush hour. Some bus drivers honked to show their support. 

About 50 people stood at the stop at the intersection of Parc and St-Viateur Street.

Protesters also lined up at other stops along the route, which runs from Parc Extension, a diverse neighbourhood in the northern part of the city, through Mile End to Place-des-Arts Metro station downtown. They did not board the buses.

The protesters say the law is a political manoeuvre that marginalizes Muslim women who wear a niqab or burka.

"I think this is happening now because the Liberals are losing some of their base to [opposition parties] the CAQ and the Parti Québécois and they want to win it back, and [that base] is a population that might be galvanized by a return to this debate," said protester Kathryn Jezer-Morton. 

"We feel that this ban is limiting their access to services that should be a fundamental right for all Quebecers."

Public transit agencies await directives

Public transit agencies in Montreal and Laval say they haven't received directives on how to implement the law, leaving them worried that bus drivers will have to make an individual judgment call.

"STM bus drivers don't want that responsibility. When it comes to applying the law, they want clear directives from the STM," union spokesperson Ronald Boisrond said in an interview this week.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who is in the middle of a municipal election campaign, has been an outspoken critic of the bill, accusing the provincial government of overstepping its jurisdiction and ignoring his city's multicultural character.

On Tuesday, he said there are "serious problems" with how it would be applied.

Mayoral candidate Valérie Plante of Projet Montréal said she was "unequivocally against" the legislation.

The law provides for the possibility of religious accommodation in certain cases, leading critics to question how far reaching it will actually be. It remains unclear how religious accommodation requests will be evaluated.