Politics

Brown, Poilievre trade shots over niqab ban as Conservative leadership race heats up

Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown launched an attack Monday on his opponent Pierre Poilievre, accusing the Conservative MP of supporting "discriminatory policies" that target immigrants.

Patrick Brown says his Conservative leadership opponent has supported discriminatory policies

Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown, left, a Conservative leadership contender, attacked his opponent Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, right, over his past support for a "niqab ban" at citizenship ceremonies. (The Canadian Press)

Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown launched an attack Monday on his opponent Pierre Poilievre, accusing the Conservative MP of supporting "discriminatory policies" that target immigrants.

Poilievre, the MP for the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton considered the front-runner in the race, pitched new policies Monday that he said will make it easier for skilled immigrants to practice their professions in Canada. He vowed to take on what he called "money-grabbing gatekeepers" who determine whether an immigrant is qualified to work in Canada.

But Brown, the current mayor of Brampton, Ont., said Poilievre "has no credibility announcing any sort of policy which largely impacts minority communities such as immigration because he's never publicly stood against policies that disproportionately impact them."

Brown accused Poilievre of supporting the proposed "niqab ban" at citizenship ceremonies and a hotline to report "barbaric cultural practices" such as sexual slavery or "honour" killings — two elements of the 2015 Conservative election platform. Critics said these policy positions were part of a cynical attempt to mobilize anti-immigrant votes, while supporters said they were meant to protect Canadian values of secularism and gender equality.

Some Conservatives have cited the party's past support for these policies to explain its lacklustre support among some immigrant communities in the 2019 and 2021 federal election campaigns.

A post-election report prepared for former party leader Erin O'Toole zeroed in on the party's poor performance with so-called "ethnic voters." The report's author, former Conservative MP James Cumming, concluded the party stumbled in the 2021 campaign in must-win regions like the Greater Toronto Area and greater Vancouver in part because of lingering resentment over the "niqab ban" and the hotline.

Poilievre was a cabinet minister when the former Conservative government first pitched these ideas ahead of the 2015 contest.

Poilievre defends niqab policy in 2015

At an Oct. 2015 press conference during that year's election campaign, Poilievre defended the policy of forcing Muslim women to remove the niqab while they recite the oath of citizenship.

Poilievre said it was "completely reasonable" to ask someone to show their face and the party would not "succumb to political correctness" by accommodating the veil at such an important event. He said wearing a niqab at a citizenship ceremony is "not in line with Canadian values."

"The reason we ask people to show up in person is because we want to witness them giving their oath of allegiance to this country. We don't let people fax it in, make a phone call or send an email. We bring them in person because it is a sacred moment of citizenship and of loyalty to country that must be witnessed by one's peers and that cannot be done if one's face is covered," Poilievre said at the time.

He also suggested the niqab policy might be extended to other areas of federal jurisdiction.

WATCH: Pierre Poilievre is asked about niqab ban

Pierre Poilievre asked about niqab ban for public servants

7 years ago
Duration 1:41
Conservative candidate Pierre Poilievre defends party position on ban at citizenship ceremony.

Days after that press conference, a Federal Court judge overturned the niqab ban, saying the policy violates the Citizenship Act, which states citizenship judges must allow the greatest possible religious freedom when administering the oath.

Brown said Poilieve's association with these proposals could be a liability in the next general election.

"Rather than making this the most welcoming country to immigrants in the world, he has happily pushed rhetoric that only attempted to divide people rather than bring them together," Brown said.

Zunera Ishaq (second from right) is embraced by her friend Nusrat Wahid after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned a ban on the wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"In fact, Mr. Poilievre has enlisted a campaign spokesperson who was the architect of the 2015 Conservative federal election campaign. This is the same campaign which platformed those two abhorrent policies and lost the Conservatives the 2015 general election."

Poilievre has recruited Jenni Byrne — a former senior staffer to ex-prime minister Stephen Harper and the party's 2015 campaign manager — to lead his leadership team.

Brown said he will "proudly fight against these incursions on religious freedom." He vowed also to target Bill 21, Quebec's controversial secularism law, which forces public servants to remove religious garb while on the job.

"I have never shied away from fighting against intolerance and never will. Every Canadian leader should feel the same way," Brown said.

'He's lying,' Poilievre says

Poilievre hit back at Brown in a media statement, saying his opponent is someone who "lies a lot."

Poilievre accused Brown of "lying in his attacks on the Harper government" because the party never advocated for an outright "niqab ban" but rather for limits on the veil at citizenship ceremonies.

"What Mr. Harper proposed was that a person's face be visible while giving oaths ... he's lying to attack Stephen Harper's government and to divide our party," Poilievre said, while describing himself a "strong supporter of immigration and equality."

"Lying and dividing is no way to win."

In a subsequent statement, Brown said two key Poilievre organizers — MPs Melissa Lantsman and Tim Uppal — have already apologized for their past support for limits on the niqab.

After the deadly London, Ont. van attack last summer, both Lantsman and Uppal said they were wrong to back a veil ban in 2015 — a political position they said may have fuelled Islamophobia and hate.

"Your campaign co-chair and key endorser did a brave, good, thing and called out the niqab ban. With your statement below are you calling them liars too?" Brown said in a social media post.

At a campaign announcement in Markham, Ont., Poilievre said he'd be a champion for skilled immigrants who struggle to practice their professions in Canada because provincial governments or regulatory bodies sometimes take 18 months or more to certify that a new immigrant can actually work in their chosen field.

This is a longstanding issue for immigrants with advanced degrees. Many of them come to Canada to work in professions like engineering, medicine and law only to find there are hurdles to clear, like testing, licensing and study requirements — policies that are supposed to ensure foreign-trained professionals are just as qualified as their Canadian equivalents.

While the licensing of professionals is strictly provincial jurisdiction, Poilievre said he'd use federal spending powers to encourage provinces to do the certification work faster.

Calling it a "60-day guarantee," Poilievre said that, if elected, he would give more money to provinces and territories that compel occupational licensing bodies to grant immigrants licences to work within 60 days of getting the application.

He's also proposing what he's calling "merit-based licenses," which would allow immigrants to work in their profession after passing a "skills and competence" test rather than completing more coursework.

Asked about Brown's recent entry into the leadership race, Poilievre said the Brampton mayor "will say and do anything" to get elected.

Poilievre said Brown's past support for a carbon tax is also disqualifying. Brown backed a price on carbon emissions when he was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

"He and I disagree on his carbon tax," Poilievre said.

"I can't understand that point of view. Right now, Canadians are paying upwards of $1.70 a litre. Many Canadians feel like they can't even have the freedom of mobility because it's too expensive to gas up their vehicles and get where they're going. I will get rid of the tax. I will pursue technology not taxes, results not revenue."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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