Quebec MP Steven Blaney is running for leadership of the Conservative Party, and his first major policy position is a ban on the niqab and a promise to invoke the notwithstanding clause if courts strike down his new measures.
The former minister in the cabinet of Stephen Harper said he will introduce legislation that would forbid the Islamic face-covering while voting and taking the oath of citizenship. He also said that the prohibition would extend to people working in the federal public service.
"We are a country that is built on immigration, but we have to be sure that those new Canadians we welcome are understanding of how we live. We don't want our country to become like the country they left," Blaney told reporters Monday. "We fully welcome you, but we want you to respect who we are."
The measures are necessary, Blaney said, to "ensure the sustainability of our integration model" and to protect women's rights.
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The proposal revives a controversial debate from the last campaign, when Harper himself suggested the niqab should be banned from the public service.
His party enacted policies to prevent women from wearing a niqab while taking the citizenship oath, and promised to create a "barbaric cultural practices" tip line. Those two proposals led some to accuse the party of engaging in identity politics and fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment.
Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim woman, went to court to challenge the government's ban, and, in the middle of the campaign, the Federal Court of Appeal cleared the way for her to wear the headcovering.
Blaney said he'd use Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives Parliament little-used override powers, to block the likes of Ishaq from the ceremony despite the court's ruling.
Former Quebec premier Pauline Marois, of the Parti Quebebcois, introduced similar measures in the controversial Charter of Values, which would have required anyone who receives or administers services from the state to uncover their face. Marois was ultimately bested by Liberal Philippe Couillard in the subsequent election.
Now, Couillard is proposing a watered-down version of the Charter to bar public servants from wearing the burqa or the niqab at work
"Quebec has played a leadership role in discussing those issues in an open manner," Blaney said. "I believe we are ready in Canada for a robust and mature conversation about our Canadian identity."
Boost security measures
Blaney, the former minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, said he also would give more powers to the country's security agencies to "substantially expand their current screening capacity regarding potential national security threats." He said those agencies have been overwhelmed with the influx of refugees from war-torn regions.
The Quebec MP is familiar with this file as he was tasked with implementing Bill C-51, which granted the RCMP, CSIS, and CSE sweeping new powers as part of the former government's efforts to root out terrorists after the Oct. 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill.
He also wants to change the citizenship test given to prospective new Canadians, to verify their "understanding and appreciation of Canada's core principles."
Fellow Conservative leadership contender Kellie Leitch has proposed a process to screen immigrants for "anti-Canadian" values, but Blaney said his process would be easier to implement, because he is simply "improving" an existing test.
Blaney plans to bolster the language component of the test to better ensure immigrants are well versed in one of the two official languages.
"Canadian citizenship is one of the most valuable and highly respected in the world," Blaney said.
"While this prestigious citizenship comes with a set of rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it also comes with responsibilities which are based on a set of fundamental principles designed to ensure dignity, freedom, and equality of all Canadians regardless of their race, gender or age."
Another leadership contender, Michael Chong, said the party should not be focused on "divisive social issues" like a niqab ban and said party members aren't clamouring to enact these sort of policies.
Chong said the party was hurt in the last election, because it diverted attention away from the issue that is top of mind for most Canadians — jobs and the economy — by playing up policies such as the tipline.
Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai, whose leadership campaign strategy includes a direct appeal to minority voters, condemned Blaney for focussing on identity politics.
Andrew Saxton, a former B.C. MP who last week joined the crowded field vying for the leadership, said people should be expected to reveal their faces in certain circumstances — when voting, testifying in court of taking the citizenship oath — but said he would not make that policy a major part of his pitch to Conservative party members.
Some Liberal MPs pounced on Blaney's pledge and defended Muslim women who wear the niqab.
The contenders, so far
Candidate who has declared, registered and paid the full fee: Michael Chong.
Candidates who have declared and registered: Chris Alexander; Maxime Bernier; Steven Blaney; Kellie Leitch; Deepak Obhrai; Erin O'Toole; Andrew Scheer; Brad Trost.
Expected to declare soon: Lisa Raitt.
Others who have mused about running but not declared: Kevin O'Leary.
A previous version of this story said the former Harper government passed legislation to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. In fact, it was a ministerial directive from the then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.Oct 24, 2016 4:41 PM ET