Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée says the recently adopted law that forces people receiving or giving public services to have their face uncovered is not repressive.
Vallée held a news conference in Quebec City Tuesday morning to outline how the controversial law will be implemented on a practical basis.
The legislation has been widely derided, with critics saying it targets Muslim women.
Vallée apologized repeatedly for confusion over the law, saying she didn't expect the widespread negative reaction.
"I think it is important to clarify the objective of the bill. Over the weekend, we heard all kinds of interpretations given to the bill that are not what the bill is all about," she said. "We considered that this bill is a well-balanced response to the debates that have taken course over the last 10 years in Quebec."
"Honestly, I'm just sorry that it wasn't as clear and maybe what I'm doing today, I should have done the day after we adopted the bill," said Vallée.
A week ago the justice minister said people with a niqab, large sunglasses, or any face covering would have to remove it for the entire duration of a bus ride, or any other interaction with a publicly-paid service.
Now she said those getting on a bus or using the subway will not have to show their face unless they are using a card with photo ID, such as those using a student or senior citizens' pass.
Once that interaction with the driver or the employee in the ticket booth is finished, the person will be allowed to cover his or her face.
Last week minister said rule applied for duration of ride. Now, ppl who use photo ID cards can keep faces covered after showing face first. https://t.co/YY2j3nl5yR— Maya Johnson (@MJohnsonCTV) October 24, 2017
Coalition Avenir Quebec critic Nathalie Roy said it was a stunning reversal.
"She said for example on a bus, the woman has to show her face all the time. This morning, she said: 'No, no, no, just for identification.' Woah! So, you see, it's a mess. That bill is a mess," said Roy.
Parti Quebecois secularism critic Agnes Maltais said she felt "cheated" by Vallée's explanation, saying it went against the spirit of compromises reached in discussions over the bill.
PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisée said the Liberals simply gave in to opposition.
"The government caved, simply caved and weakened the credibility of the Quebec government and the Quebec state," said Lisée.
Politicians publicly support Catholics
As Vallée prepared to give her remarks, Quebec Solidaire tabled a motion to remove the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly, saying if Quebec is to adopt religious neutrality laws, the Catholic symbol that has long been a fixture over the speaker's chair was no longer appropriate.
The members of the National Assembly rejected Quebec Solidaire's motion, arguing that the statue of the Roman Catholic God is not actually religious, but is instead a cultural and historical symbol.
CAQ leader Francois Legault said the crucifix is intrinsic to Quebec and its history.
"We have a Christian heritage in Quebec and we cannot decide tomorrow that we can change our past," said Legault. "I don't see any problem keeping it."
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called his fellow MNA's "cowards" for their decision.
"It is Olympic-calibre incoherence," said Nadeau-Dubois, saying it was ridiculous to pretend to be a secular state while debating laws under a religious icon donated by the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century.
Damage has been done
Afifa Suleman, a 19-year-old student who wears a niqab, said while she understands some of the intent of the legislation, the very existence of the bill is problematic.
She said she gladly shows her face for security purposes but doesn't understand why she would be required to do so in school.
"If the bus driver needs to identify you, that was already there," she said. "If you need me to identify myself, I'm more than happy. I find this is just causing commotion, it's just brewing hate between people."
She's torn about the requirement to uncover her face in class.
"I really think, what will I do? I mean the teachers are great. They don't want to force anyone to do anything," said Suleman.
McGill Law School professor Daniel Weinstock said the clarifications on the law reinforce his view that it will change very little.
"I think the guidelines make it clear for those of reading the fine print of the law that this is, from a legal point of view, a toothless law," he said. "All the exemptions and grounds for accommodation which the Supreme Court insisted upon are reiterated in the law."
He said the Supreme Court has ruled that there are religious exemptions for being forced to show your face and that the amount of real world instances in which Bill 62 might be applied are "infinitesimal."
That's a viewpoint with which Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre agrees.
"At the end of the day... there's no sanction," said Coderre.
Both Weinstock and Coderre expect to see a court challenge--a successful one--very soon.