Poll ordered by Harper found strong support for niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies

Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered a special survey in March that asked 3,000 Canadians about a range of issues. The results had been kept under wraps until Thursday, the day of the French-language leaders' debate, and show wide support among Canadians for the mandatory removal of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.

Newly released taxpayer-funded poll, kept secret until Thursday, finds support for Tory policy on niqab

The niqab has become a hot topic on the election campaign trail, with leaders of the federal parties voicing support or opposition for the government's attempt to ban Muslims from wearing the face covering at citizenship ceremonies. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

A public-opinion poll ordered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier this year found overwhelming support among Canadians for the requirement that women remove their niqabs or burkas at citizenship ceremonies.

The March telephone survey by Léger Marketing found 82 per cent of Canadians favoured the policy somewhat or strongly, with just 15 per cent opposed. Support was widespread, but especially strong in Quebec, where 93 per cent were in favour of the requirement.

The government has tried to impose a ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, but the Federal Court ruled earlier this month that such a ban is unlawful. The Conservatives have said they will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Léger survey results, delivered March 31 to the Privy Council Office, were posted Thursday, the day of the first French-language leaders' debate, on a government website under a policy that requires publication of taxpayer-paid polls within six months. 

CBC News had asked about the Léger poll results in June, but a spokesman for the office at the time declined to provide details. 

A taxpayer-funded poll, ordered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and kept secret until Thursday, found wide support, among Quebecers especially, for requiring the removal of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.
The survey of 3,000 Canadians, plus a series of 12 related focus groups, cost $133,000 and were last-minute additions to the regular polling the prime minister's department commissions each year. In 2014-15, with an election in the offing, the department spent more than $410,000 on polling, the highest level since 2008.

The survey and focus groups asked key questions about the economy, Canada's military role in countering ISIS, Canada's efforts to assist Ukraine and the niqab/burka question.

On the economy, low oil prices and a sagging dollar were largely blamed for weak growth, and job creation was seen as a priority. The word "fragile" was used frequently by respondents to describe the economic climate.

Canada's contribution to airstrikes against ISIS got plaudits, with 59 per cent of respondents voicing support compared with 37 per cent who were opposed. The poll found 62 per cent supported economic sanctions on Russia over its involvement in the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, but 50 per cent of survey respondents opposed sending weapons and military supplies to the Ukrainian government.

Last-minute additions

Léger says the results are accurate to within 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The Léger survey and focus groups were not the only last-minute additions to the regular spring and fall polls the Privy Council Office approves months ahead of time. The government also added a $26,000 series of focus groups in the wake of the Oct. 22 shootings at Parliament Hill.

Pollster Stephen Kiar, CEO and owner of Ottawa-based Phoenix SPI, says public-opinion research normally winds down as a federal election approaches, but that fixed election dates may be changing the dynamics of polling and advertising.

Harper told the House of Commons in March that the need to ban the niqab is 'very easy to understand.' That same month Harper ordered a poll of 3,000 Canadians about the policy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Knowing the election date well in advance means a longer campaign period and more time to plan — and poll and advertise, he said.

"When you're the government in power, that gives you levers … and the resources that go with being the governing party that you're able to bring to bear in advance of the election," Kiar said.

The Privy Council Office also ordered a Harris Decima poll in June this year that asked questions about taxes, ISIS and whether the Senate should be abolished. Those results, and the cost to taxpayers, have not been released publicly.

This advertisement for the Bloc Québécois asks whether it's necessary to hide one's face in order to vote for the NDP, referring to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's view that niqabs should be allowed at citizenship ceremonies. (BLOC.org)
In the current election campaign, the Conservative Party has focused on issues for which the Léger survey found strong support: job-creation, fighting ISIS and, more recently, the banning of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.

Léger also found strong support among Canadians for the niqab ban in a separate poll conducted in March for the Association for Canadian Studies. That survey of 1,700 Canadians found seven out of 10 Canadians believe women should remove the niqab in such circumstances.

A spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration, Nancy Caron, says the department does not track the number of people who wear full face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

"Anecdotal evidence indicates the number is small and that the number of candidates who decline to unveil for the oath is smaller still," she said in an email.

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How to watch Thursday's debate

The French-language leaders' debate will be broadcast live and live streamed online 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET Thursday.

You can watch the debate in simultaneous English translation on CBC News Network and online at CBCNews.ca/Canada Votes beginning with a Power & Politics pre-debate special at 7 p.m. ET. The debate will be broadcast in French by Radio-Canada (check local listings) and live streamed online at ICI Radio-Canada.ca.

The debate is being produced by a partnership of Radio-Canada, La Presse, Télé-Québec, CBC News, CTV News and Global News, together with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Google, YouTube and CPAC.

With a file from Sarah Sears