Consensus growing on anti-Niqab law in Quebec

Veiled women would not receive government services

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Canada's federal government is defending a controversial Quebec bill that seeks to ban Muslim women from wearing face-covering burka and niqab veils in public institutions.

"The law proposed by the Quebec government makes sense," Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman Dimitri Soudas told The Globe and Mail.

But he noted that federal politicians "don't get a vote in provincial assemblies."

The draft bill, presented on Wednesday before the National Assembly of Quebec by Liberal lawmaker Kathleen Weil, the province's justice minister, seeks to ban provincial government employees from wearing the full-face veil at work.

If adopted, the measure would also ban women wearing the burqa or niqab -- veils advocated by ultra-conservative Muslims -- when dealing with provincial services, including educational institutions, private schools receiving government funds, nurseries and health centers.

National Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has also thrown his support behind the bill.

"I think they have found a good balance," he said about Quebec Premier Jean Charest's proposal.

"We watch the Quebec debate with interest," Ignatieff added on the first day of his party's three-day conference.

He was the first federal leader to openly discuss the debate over wearing a full-face veil in public institutions.

The law proposed by the Quebec government makes sense

Dimitri Soudas

Legislation unveiled by the provincial Liberal government on Wednesday would refuse education, day care and nonemergency healthcare to women wearing full face veils. The law would also apply to those working in the public sector.

Premier Jean Charest said the predominantly French-speaking province of 7.5 million people had to strike a balance between respecting the rights of individuals while ensuring Quebec remained open and welcoming.

"We are clearly indicating limits that cannot be breached: respecting equality between men and women (and) the religious neutrality of the state ... and interacting with the state with an uncovered face," he said.

The Parti Quebecois has led opposition to the bill, saying it does not go far enough. The party's leader, Pauline Marois, seeks to also ban the hijab, the most common Muslim veil that covers a woman's hair and neck.

French speaking Quebec's debate comes as France has been caught up in a series of controversies that have highlighted its unease with Islam in a strictly secular society.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government is drafting legislation to ban wearing of the full Islamic veil and is sponsoring a debate on national identity that has exposed fears about immigration in the country home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority.

We are clearly indicating limits that cannot be breached: respecting equality between men and women and the religious neutrality of the state

Premier Jean Charest