Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour talks niqabs

"I am not convinced at all that we should try to liberate women against their will," says Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour on niqab debate.

Constitutional rights are being threatened during election campaign, says Arbour

Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour says the state cannot liberate niqab-wearing women against their will. (CBC)

One of Canada's most esteemed jurists, Louise Arbour, has had enough with what she calls the "unhealthy debate" over the niqab face-covering looming large in the federal election campaign.

Arbour — a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, one-time UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda — wrote in an open letter published Thursday in the French-language daily La Presse that constitutional rights guaranteed in law are being threatened in the niqab debate.

"You only need protection for these freedoms when they are threatened, and this, I think, is an example of that," Arbour told CBC Montreal Daybreak.

The Conservative government has gone too far in trying to sidestep Charter rights that are in place to protect all Canadians, said Arbour.

"I am not convinced at all that we should try to liberate women against their will or by forcing them to stay hidden at home because there is no place for them in public life and the public sphere and public working place," Arbour said.

Arbour argues the best way to promote freedom of religion and gender equality is by welcoming women who wear niqabs into the public sphere.

"It is in that way that they will gain economic power and be exposed to other views," said Arbour. "I think it is a much better route than to try to force them to make choices that are maybe impossible for them to make."

Arbour has already made it clear she is backing the NDP in this election.  Her daughter, Emilie Taman, is running for the NDP in Ottawa-Vanier. Taman was fired from her job as a federal prosecutor for taking unauthorized leave to seek the NDP nomination in that riding.