'Niqab ban' returns as Conservative bill planned for Parliament's final days

With just days to go before Parliament rises for the summer — and MPs shift into election campaign mode — Multiculturalism Minister Tim Uppal says the Harper government has a last-minute bill coming to ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

Previous 'niqab ban' struck down in Federal Court in February, feds appealed

Multiculturalism Minister Tim Uppal and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel told reporters Wednesday that the Harper government would soon introduce new legislation to ban face-coverings at citizenship ceremonies. (CBC)

With just days to go before Parliament rises for the summer — and MPs shift into election campaign mode — Multiculturalism Minister Tim Uppal says the Harper government has a last-minute bill coming to ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

The Quebec government introduced legislation Wednesday to enshrine religious neutrality in provincial institutions, including a requirement for people giving or receiving provincial government services to have their faces uncovered. The law would mean some Muslim women, for example, could not choose to wear their niqabs in this context.

"We broadly support Quebec's legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services," Uppal told reporters after the Conservative caucus met on Parliament Hill. 

"Our government will be moving forward in the coming days with legislation with respect to the face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, and we will consider what other measures may be necessary," the minister said.

His colleague, Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, who represents a Quebec riding, told reporters the Conservative government is analyzing other possible measures in the future, but acknowledged that the federal bill would not go as far as Quebec's for the time being.
The niqab controversy prompted Ottawa businesswoman Mahwash Fatima, 33, to explain to CBC News why she wears her face veil in public. The ban on wearing the veil during citizenship oaths sparked concern among Muslims that they would not be able to express loyalty to their country without denying their religious beliefs. (CBC )

When asked if this proposal was Islamophobic, Uppal said absolutely not.

"We've been very clear that... regarding citizenship ceremonies, at a time when people are pledging allegiance to this country, when they're joining the Canadian family, we find that Canadians expect that anyone joining the Canadian family at that time would have their face uncovered," he said.

Previous 'niqab ban' struck down

In late 2011, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney issued a directive for citizenship judges to force Muslim women to remove their niqabs or any other face-covering garments, such as burkas, before they can recite the oath of citizenship to become Canadians. 

That ban was struck down by a Federal Court judge in February, in a case brought by Zunera Ishaq, who argued that female officials could easily take her oath in private, and that the law doesn't require that people be "seen" taking it.

All that's needed, the judge agreed, is for citizenship applicants to sign a form saying they've taken the oath. The ban was inconsistent with the duty given to citizenship judges, the Federal Court ruled.

The decision sparked strong public and political reaction and a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told a Victoriaville, Que., audience days later the federal government would appeal the ruling.

"I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identify at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family," Harper said in February.  "This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal."

Although a bill can be introduced in a Parliament's dying days, there's insufficient time for new legislation to pass all stages without the unanimous consent of all parties in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

Wedge issue?

Putting a bill on the table, however ill-fated it may be, could be useful for Conservatives as parties define their positions and campaign messages on key issues for the coming election campaign.

The niqab ban was politically popular in some parts of Quebec, where heated debates about the failed secular charter divided the province over public displays of religious beliefs.

Tom Mulcair, whose New Democrats rely on strong support in Quebec where the ban was popular, came out against Harper's move to appeal.

"I see that Muslims are often scapegoats for political debate. And that, I find it heartbreaking," he told reporters in French.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also condemned the appeal.

But the Bloc Québécois supported the ban, targeting a controversial ad at Quebecers who voted NDP in 2011.

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 on the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. (BLOC.org)