"I think for the citizenship ceremony, someone needs to identify themselves. We need to know who they are."
— Conservative MP Costas Menegakis, parliamentary secretary to the minister of citizenship and immigration.
Debate has been raging on Parliament Hill over the niqab worn by some Muslim women ever since Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared last month that it's "offensive" to cover one's face while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship.
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Since Jason Kenney, then immigration minister, first issued a policy directive on the subject in December 2011, the government has variously argued that banning face covering garments during citizenship ceremonies is necessary to ensure would-be citizens actually recite the oath and to reflect the Canadian values of openness, transparency and gender equality at the moment they join the Canadian family.
A new justification arose this week amid opposition charges that the government is deliberately stoking prejudice against Muslims to advance its anti-terrorist agenda: the niqab ban is simply about verifying the identity of those who would be Canadian citizens.
That argument was advanced by Conservative MP Costas Menegakis, parliamentary secretary to the citizenship and immigration minister, and echoed by at least one cabinet minister, International Development Minister Christian Paradis.
But they seemed oblivious to the fact that prospective citizens are required to provide multiple proofs of their identity — including removal of face coverings, in private, in front of a citizenship official — before they get to the final, ceremonial step in the process: taking the oath.
And they're required to provide one more proof after the ceremony — their signature on a certificate affirming that they've taken the oath.
Spoiler Alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter project is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of "full of baloney."
Given all other proofs of identity required in the citizenship process, compelling people to show their faces while reciting the oath does appear — in the words of the Federal Court judge who struck down the niqab ban — to be "superfluous."
The current controversy was triggered by a Feb. 6 ruling — which the government has vowed to appeal — by Justice Keith Boswell in the case of Zunera Ishaq.
Ishaq challenged Kenney's policy directive that she must remove her niqab while reciting the oath of citizenship at a public ceremony.
Until that point, she had willingly complied with all the other requirements of the citizenship process.
Among other things, citizenship candidates are required to provide pertinent immigration documents; proof of language proficiency; education records; copies of the biographical pages (which include name, photo, address, date of birth) of all passports and travel documents; two official photos in which "full facial features" are visible; and two pieces of personal identification, at least one of which must have a photo.
The RCMP and CSIS run checks on all applicants to ensure there are no criminal or security reasons to preclude citizenship.
If necessary, applicants can be required to provide fingerprints and court documents.
Before taking the citizenship test, Ishaq had agreed to remove her niqab so that her identity could be verified -- in accordance with the government's citizenship policy manual, which stipulates that the verification at this stage should be done in private by a female official.
But she balked at removing her veil — which she considered a religious obligation — at the mandatory, public oath-taking ceremony.
In the court case, federal government lawyers made a number of arguments — none of which related to the need to verify one's identity.
For that matter, none echoed Harper's insistence that the niqab should be banned during citizenship ceremonies because it is contrary to Canadian values and "rooted in a culture that is anti-women."
They argued that Kenney's policy directive is not mandatory but just a non-binding guideline that citizenship judges are free to ignore.
And they maintained the policy was created due to concerns that some citizenship candidates were not actually reciting the oath and, therefore, that their mouths needed to be visible during the ceremony.
Justice Boswell concluded, however, that the wording of the directive in the citizenship ceremony policy manual left no discretion to citizenship judges, stipulating that candidates are "required" to remove face coverings and that the citizenship certificate "is NOT to be presented" if a candidate refuses.
He also found that the directive conflicted with regulations which require citizenship judges to administer the oath "with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or solemn affirmation thereof."
Boswell noted that the regulations require oath takers to subsequently sign a certificate certifying that the oath has been taken, counter-signed by the official who administered the oath.
Given that, he concluded that requiring a person to be seen to be taking the verbal oath "does appear to be superfluous."
Furthermore, he said it "would make it impossible not just for a niqab-wearing woman to obtain citizenship but also for a mute person or a silent monk."
"I agree with the applicant (Ishaq) that it is the candidate's signature beneath this written oath or affirmation of citizenship, rather than visual confirmation of the candidate saying the oath, that is the only proof needed that a candidate has sworn or affirmed the oath of citizenship," Boswell concluded.
Whatever the merits of the government's arguments about Canadian values and gender equality, the contention that face coverings must be banned in order to verify identity does not hold up, given the multiple other ways in which citizenship applicants must prove their identity.
For these reasons, the statement by Menegakis is "full of baloney."
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
- No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.
- A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.
- Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
- A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
- Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.
The Guide to Citizenship Ceremonies policy manual, cited throughout Boswell's ruling, is usually found at the following link, but does not currently appear to be accessible: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/manuals/cp/cp15-eng.pdf
Officials with Citizenship and Immigration Canada said Friday they were looking into the matter.