The government is placing a ban on face coverings such as niqabs for people swearing their oath of citizenship, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Monday.
The ban takes effect immediately.
As a result, Muslim women will have to remove their niqabs or any other face-covering garments, such as burkas, before they can recite the oath of citizenship to become Canadians. Citizenship judges will be directed to enforce the rules at ceremonies over which they preside.
It's a "public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly," he said, calling it "frankly, bizarre" that women were allowed to wear face veils while they swear their citizenship oaths.
Kenney said he doesn't accept that it's a religious obligation to wear the veil, explaining that when Muslim women perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required by their faith, they are required not to cover their faces.
"It's a cultural tradition, which I think reflects a certain view about women that we don't accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they're taking the citizenship oath, that's the right place to start," Kenney said in an interview on CBC News Network.
Complaints from citizenship court judges
A directive posted on the department's website says if candidates aren't seen taking the oath, officials are to explain that they must be seen reciting it, and that they can't become Canadian citizens without it. They can return for the next citizenship ceremony, but "the opportunity to return to take the oath at another citizenship ceremony applies only once," the directive says.
Women who choose not to remove their face coverings can remain permanent residents, Kenney told CBC's Evan Solomon, host of Power & Politics. The citizenship oath is the last step before going from permanent residency to citizenship. Permanent residents can live in Canada but can't vote or run for office.
Kenney said he's had complaints from MPs and citizenship court judges that it's hard to tell whether people with their faces covered are actually reciting the oath of citizenship, which he says is a requirement to become Canadian. Wladyslaw Lizon, a Conservative MP from Mississauga, Ont., brought it to his attention, Kenney says.
"We cannot have two classes of citizenship ceremonies. Canadian citizenship is not just about the right to carry a passport and to vote," he said.
Citizenship and immigration officials will be asking that "all those taking the oath do so openly," Kenney said, describing it as a "deep principle that goes to the heart of our values."
'Absurd from beginning to end'
A spokeswoman for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations says the group was floored by the announcement.
"I thought it was absurd from beginning to end," said Julia Williams, the human rights and civil liberties officer for CAIR-Can.
She said Kenney's argument that Islam does not require women to wear the niqab defies their charter rights.
"In Canada we also have religious freedom which is enshrined in the charter, and so long as she is not harming someone by her actions, she should be allowed to dress as she sees fit," Williams said.
"I can't think of anything more damaging to women's equality and women's rights than removing their freedom of choice. So I think it was an easy political point to score and at the expense of a vulnerable group of women."
On Thursday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case where a woman wants to testify in court while wearing a niqab. The complainant argued her right to wear the niqab is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says Kenney should have waited for the Supreme Court decision, which will determine whether there's a limit to freedom of religion.
"I must say that, personally, I'm not aware of an epidemic of burkas in front of the citizenship courts of the land. It's something that's escaped my personal attention," Rae said.
The government's guide to citizenship notes organizers should be culturally sensitive and that it's appropriate to wear national dress to the ceremony.