Quebec to allow prison guards to wear Islamic hijab
By Marianne White, Postmedia News
The Quebec Public Security Department passed the new rule after reaching a deal with Quebec's human rights commission, following a complaint made four years ago.
The ministry chose to enforce what it calls an "accommodation" rather than take the matter before the provincial human rights tribunal.
The Parti Quebecois lambasted the government Tuesday for caving in to this "excessive" demand. "This is completely unacceptable," said PQ critic for secularism issues Carole Poirier.
"The guards are state employees and should not wear any conspicuous religious symbols, especially not in a jail where the neutrality of the state should be obvious," added Poirier.
The decision stems from a 2007 incident when a then-19-year-old Islamic Montrealer abruptly terminated training to become a Quebec prison guard after she refused to remove her hijab — a garment that covers the hair but leaves the face revealed.
The woman had passed all preliminary tests and was about halfway through a training program at Bordeaux jail in Montreal when she was told she couldn't wear her hijab on the job, for safety reasons. Citing her religious beliefs, the woman challenged the ban and eventually filed a complaint with the human rights commission.
After a lengthy process, the commission found the Public Security Department rules were discriminatory. The body announced Tuesday it has reached a deal with the government to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab at work.
In order to comply with safety regulations, the department will provide a Velcro-fastened hijab to its staff upon request for religious reasons.
"They have to make a written demand and it won't be automatically granted," said Valerie Simard, a spokeswoman for the department.
A spokeswoman for the human rights commission noted the Montreal woman who filed the complaint will not benefit from the measure since she has since then chosen a different career.
Simard couldn't say whether their decision was based on that sole complaint or if other guards had asked for it.
"We don't know what the demand will be like," she added.
Simard defended the decision by noting Correctional Service Canada allows its Muslim guards to wear the hijab in the federal penitentiary system.
The federal department said Tuesday it seeks to accommodate religious and cultural needs of staff "as much as possible, with the safety and security of persons and institutions in mind," but declined to specifically address questions on the hijab.
In 2010, Quebec introduced a bill, still working its way through the legislature, to require public employees, education and health workers, and anyone seeking government services, to have their faces uncovered at all times. This would ban niqabs and other face veils, but would allow other religious signs, such as the wearing of a cross or a hijab.
The PQ's Poirier said it is time the government comes up with wide-ranging guidelines to deal with accommodations rather than make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
"This only fuels the fire," she said.
Over the past few years, the issue of accommodation of religious minorities has been hotly debated in Quebec and some isolated cases of accommodation led to outcries.
In 2008, the Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended the government forbid public employees from wearing the hijab and other conspicuous religious symbols.