The leaders of the two largest federal public service unions say they are not aware of a single member who wears a niqab — and accused Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of trying to distract voters with his plan to consider a ban on the wearing of face coverings in public sector work places.
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"It means nothing," said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
"Obviously it's a tactic of the Conservatives' campaign and it's absolutely not an issue for us as federal public sector unions. We're staying focused on the task — the task of ensuring that we get the change we want in this election so that we can be best positioned to deliver critical public services to Canadians, and the niqab just doesn't factor into that."
Federal public service unions have had a tense relationship with the Conservative government on a range of issues, including cuts to the bureaucracy, the perceived muzzling of government scientists and proposed changes to civil servants' sick leave provisions, which have become the subject of a legal challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Larry Rousseau, a regional vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the niqab debate is not an issue union members are talking about.
"We will not be distracted by tactics of mass distraction," he said. "Out with the old, in with the new."
PSAC has actively campaigned against the Conservatives over cuts to the bureaucracy.
The niqab debate has become a divisive issue in this federal election campaign, after the Federal Court ruled to strike down a 2011 Conservative policy that bans wearing a niqab while taking the citizenship oath.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have openly opposed the ban, but Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has promised to take the issue to the Supreme Court.
Only two women are known to have decided not to go through with the ceremony because of the ban.
Harper has also said his party will examine a wider ban on the niqab for federal public servants, in line with proposed Quebec legislation the federal Conservatives have publicly supported in the past.
'No Conservative should ever be elected in the National Capital Region where there are 100,000 public servants.' – Union leader Debi Daviau
"That's a matter we're going to examine," Harper said in an interview Tuesday with CBC's Rosemary Barton, host of Power & Politics.
When confronted Wednesday with the union's comments that there are no known public servants who wear niqabs, Harper said he plans to look at the bill that has been tabled by the Quebec Liberals before taking further steps.
"The Liberal government in Quebec has brought forward legislation to require that people reveal their identity when delivering or receiving front-line service," he said.
"I believe the Quebec government has been handling this controversial issue in a very responsible manner and we will do exactly the same thing in Ottawa," he said.
Daviau said her union is being politically active during a federal election campaign for the first time with radio ads and lawn signs that read "Vote for Public Services," because the issues they care about are being ignored.
"No Conservative should ever be elected in the National Capital Region where there are 100,000 public servants," she said. "This government's record on critical public services is absolutely atrocious, and today we're voting for the change we need to restore the balance of public services for future generations."