Politics·Analysis

Conservatives' niqab ban shaped by Quebec's secular charter battle

Ahead of last year's Quebec general election, the Parti Québécois government introduced its secular charter. Now the federal Conservatives are borrowing a page from it.

On Parliament's last sitting day before the election, Tories move to ban niqabs at citizenship ceremonies

The Conservative government has reintroduced legislation to ban the wearing of face-coverings, such as the niqab, during citizenship ceremonies. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

Ahead of last year's Quebec general election, the Parti Québécois government introduced its secular charter.

The stated purpose was to ban the wearing of "overt" religious symbols for those working in the public sector, in order to demonstrate the government's "secularism and neutrality."

The political purpose was to distract from a poorly performing economy and wedge the opposition ahead of the election.

It didn't work, and the PQ went down in defeat.

The problem was the government's target was too broad.

Sikh turbans, Muslim head-scarves, Jewish kippahs, even "large" crosses worn around the neck would have disqualified someone from working in the public service — and cost the jobs of those already there.

PQ hoped it would spread

The minister of democratic institutions at the time, Bernard Drainville, even hoped private businesses would "guide themselves" with the ethno-nationalistic rules and bar employees from donning such symbols.

The move certainly polarized the opposition and the public, just not in the way the PQ had hoped.

By taking on so many varied religions and ethnic groups, the PQ unintentionally mustered its opponents under one banner — in this case: the Liberals.

For the first time in more than 40 years, Quebecers ousted a government after just one term.

That's not to say wedge politics doesn't work — you just have to be a little more subtle about it.

With that in mind, Tim Uppal, Minister of State for Multiculturalism, tabled Bill C-75, the Oath of Citizenship Act, on Friday — exactly one hour and 15 minutes before the House of Commons rose for the last time before the election.

Under the proposed legislation, in order to take the public oath of citizenship — a legally necessary step for every prospective citizen over the age of 14 — one's face must be uncovered.

"Our government, and a majority of Canadians, believe wholeheartedly that Canadian citizenship is a pledge of mutual responsibility," Uppal said after tabling the bill, "a commitment to the values and traditions that we share as Canadians."

Changing rules

Previously, any woman wearing a face covering to a citizenship ceremony had to uncover her face to a citizenship and immigration official to prove her identity and then was allowed to replace the face covering to participate in the public ceremony.

In 2011, the government changed that and banned face coverings altogether for citizenship ceremonies.

However, in 2013, a court found the new rule change went against the government's own legislation and struck it down, which is why C-75 has now been introduced.

The bill, obviously, didn't become law in the 11th hour of the 41st Parliament, so if the courts eventually strike down legislation for violating sections 2 (a), (b), and 15 (1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it will be long after this next election.

So what's relevant here is the politics.

By narrowing the focus on the ban on religious symbols to just one gender of one religion (and, it should be noted, very few Muslim women in Canada opt to cover their faces), the Conservatives will likely avoid the mistakes of the PQ in attempting to pit parts of the Canadian family against one another.

After all, as Uppal said, "the majority of Canadians believe wholeheartedly" that this is the right move.

When asked if this bill is Islamophobic, Uppal said, "It really is up to the opposition to explain to Canadians why they would make an exception for some people to cover their face in a citizenship ceremony."

'Terrorists'

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander put it more awkwardly last week.

"[People] don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists," he said in an interview with Vice. "They don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules."

In an interview that touched on the wearing of the niqab, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Canadians 'don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules.' (CBC)

Let's ignore the fact that the "rules" have been set, and changed by Alexander's own government and think this through.

Bill C-75 and the taxpayers' mounting legal costs are focused on a fraction of women from one religion and what they wear at one particular ceremony.

A logical argument could be made instead for welcoming a new member to the Canadian family — especially one who may come from an oppressive regime that, say, forced her to cover herself from head-to-toe in public — by demonstrating Canadian "values and traditions" and allowing her to choose what she wears to her own citizenship ceremony.

Later, after having joined the family, she might see she has the choice in this country to remove her face covering and she can exercise that right whenever she pleases — without the government telling her when and where to do so.

But that's why wedge politics are so often effective.

It pits logic against emotions — and can win elections.

About the Author

James Fitz-Morris

Parliament Hill

James Fitz-Morris covered federal politics in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau from 2006 to February, 2016.