Minister of Multiculturalism Tim Uppal says Sikhs should not be asked to remove their turbans for airport security checks, but that Muslim women wearing the niqab — a veil over the face — must remove it for citizenship oaths.
Uppal, an observant Sikh and Edmonton MP who wears the full beard and turban required by his religion, is often seen behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper in TV shots of question period.
As Parliament rose Friday for the summer, he introduced a last-minute bill banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
The government previously tried to enforce the ban by regulation, only to be rebuffed by the Federal Court. The court said that regulation, ordered in 2011 by then immigration minister Jason Kenney, was "unlawful" because the law requires citizenship judges to allow the greatest possible freedom in "religious solemnization" of the oath.
The new bill seeks to ban the niqab by legislation, rather than by ministerial order.
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Some observant Muslims see the public removal of the niqab as a violation of their religion. Uppal was asked on CBC's Power & Politics, "How would you feel, as an observant Sikh, if you were told, sorry, you can't do this unless you remove your turban?"
In reply, Uppal said, "Well there's a difference between covering your head and, of course, in this way, there is no concern with that if you're wearing a turban, a hijab or some type of scarf that covers your head. This is really about not having your face covered at the very moment that you're making this very important commitment to the country."
'What this party's about'
By contrast, Uppal said he agreed with a recent decision by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to waive a requirement that turbans be inspected by airline security. But he insisted it was "different" if the government required that niqabs be removed in public.
"In that case, everybody was going through the same security process and CATSA [the federal airline security service] was having anybody with any kind of head covering go through a secondary screening process, and she [Raitt] said that wasn't fair."
Uppal argues that the niqab case is about equality before the law. Asked why the same principle should not apply at airline security checks, he said, "What we're saying here is that the importance of the citizenship oath itself requires that you not have your face covered."
Asked why Muslim women could not swear the oath in front of female officials, where removing the niqab is no problem, Uppal said, "this is a commitment that should be made in community ... we really shouldn't be making all these exceptions to have men-only ceremonies or women-only ceremonies."
"This bill ... will show Canadians what this party's about and what they will get come the fall after we are re-elected."