Canadians' response to refugee crisis, niqab debate showed 'who we really are,' GG says

In an interview with Peter Mansbridge, Gov. Gen. David Johnston discusses how the niqab debate and Syrian refugee crisis played out during and after the last federal election. Watch the full interview tonight on The National.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston still worries about 'small-minded' initiatives that undermine our values

Governor General David Johnston pens new book of letters

8 years ago
Duration 14:53
Featured VideoGovernor General David Johnston has a new book, a collection of letters he's written to Canadians about what makes Canada unique. He sat down to chat about it with Peter Mansbridge.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston says he was initially worried that the niqab debate and the tone of the discussion about the Syrian refugee crisis during the election would hurt Canada's reputation as a fair and inclusive society.

Johnston made the comments in an exclusive interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge for The National, explaining that ultimately he was reassured by the way Canadians responded. 

"Look at the outcome of those two, quote, crises," Johnston said. "Look at how Canada has managed the Syrian refugee crisis in an exemplary way.  

"And look at the debate with respect to the niqab. I think Canada showed its strength, that that should not be, should not sidetrack us from who we really are."

Johnston added that even though the niqab debate has passed he remains concerned about the possible introduction of ideas that would hurt Canada's reputation.

"I continue to worry about any initiatives that would cause us to be small-minded, and to lose that sense of A, inclusiveness, B, fairness, C, equality of opportunity," Johnston said, while warning against any sense of complacency.

"I think we must work constantly to overcome that and to have the larger view, but I'm very optimistic that those voices, those ideas are by no means scarce in Canada. I find them abundant," he said in the interview airing tonight on The National.

A heated election issue

In the middle of the 2015 federal election, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim who moved to Ontario from Pakistan in 2008 to join her husband, could wear her niqab when she took the oath of citizenship. 

The Conservatives, who had prompted the court action with a ministerial directive months earlier, immediately announced they would appeal the case to the Supreme Court and pledged they would reintroduce the ban within 100 days of winning re-election.

The Bloc Québécois sided with the Conservatives on the issue, while the NDP and the Liberals argued that the state had no place dictating dress codes, and that Canadians should be able to express their religious beliefs freely. 

While this issue was being debated, the Conservatives also pledged to set up hotline that people could call to report "barbaric cultural practices" to stop things such as forced marriages.

When the Liberals won the election they abandoned any further legal action on the niqab issue.

Syrian refugees

The scale and speed of Canada's efforts to help Syrian refugees also became an election campaign issue, after the heartbreaking image of a toddler's body washed up on a beach circulated around the world. Alan Kurdi, 3, who had family in Canada, drowned along with his mother and brother while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey. 

There were calls to immediately increase the number of refugees that Canada would accept. The NDP pledged to bring 46,000 refugees to Canada from Syria if they were elected. The Liberals said they would bring in 25,000 by the end of 2015. 

The Conservatives had already promised to bring in 10,000 refugees from the region, but also expressed concerns around bringing in refugees from "a terrorist war-zone," fuelling criticism the government was indifferent to the human tragedy unfolding in the region.

After the election, as the Liberal government made a push to bring in 25,000 refugees by its revised target of the end of February, Johnston chaired a conference of government officials, refugee advocates and community organizations on how best to resettle the refugees.

Watch Peter Mansbridge's full interview with the Governor General tonight on The National at 10 P.M. on CBC Television or at 9 P.M. ET on CBC News Network