Niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies unlawful, as Ottawa loses appeal

The federal government has lost its appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down a ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. The ruling comes in time for the woman at the centre of the case to take her oath and vote on Oct. 19.

Appeal Court rules so woman has chance to take oath and vote on Oct. 19

Ottawa loses niqab ban appeal

8 years ago
Duration 2:27
Ban on niqab at citizenship ceremonies unlawful

The federal government has lost its appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down a ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.

Three justices on the Federal Court of Appeal, in a ruling from the bench, said they wanted to rule now so the woman at the centre of the case could take her citizenship oath and vote in the federal election on Oct. 19.

The case started with a lawsuit from Zunera Ishaq, a devout Muslim who moved to Ontario from Pakistan in 2008 to join her husband. Ishaq agreed to remove her niqab for an official before writing and passing her citizenship test two years ago, but she objects to unveiling in public at the oath-taking ceremony.

In the Federal Court ruling, Judge Keith Boswell said the government policy, introduced in 2011, violates the Citizenship Act, which states citizenship judges must allow the greatest possible religious freedom when administering the oath.

Boswell asked how that would be possible, "if the policy requires candidates to violate or renounce a basic tenet of their religion."
Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath. Ishaq says she's looking forward to voting in the Oct. 19 federal election. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

When Justice Mary Gleason made the ruling Tuesday, Ishaq wiped away tears, hugged her lawyer, shook hands with friends and then left the courtroom to pray.

Ishaq, who had many supporters with her, including her husband and newborn son, told reporters that voting in the coming election is "very important to me."

"Now I am going to be the Canadian citizen, and I will be enjoying the full rights in Canada as well, so very lucky for me," she said outside court.

Justice Department lawyer Peter Southey argued unsuccessfully that the lower court judge made errors in his original decision to overturn the ban. But Gleason said the court saw no reason to interfere with the earlier ruling.

The ban on face coverings sparked a bitter debate in the House of Commons when it was first announced.

At the time, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said his government's ban reflected the views of the "overwhelming majority" of Canadians, including moderate Muslims.

Stephen Lecce, a spokesman for the Conservative campaign, repeated that assertion Tuesday afternoon, adding that "the government is considering all legal options" after losing the appeal.

In a news release, Lecce said the Conservatives would update Canadians on their intention to introduce legislation to ban niqabs at citizenship ceremonies in "the days ahead."

Conservative candidate and Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who introduced the controversial policy when he was immigration minister, said he made the decision to underscore the public nature of the oath because citizenship defines who Canadians are.

"That's why we believe that everyone taking the oath of citizenship, a public act, should do so openly, on equal terms, and without covering their face," he said.

"Today's ruling not only goes against the democratic will of Canadians, but against long-held Canadian values of openness and the equality of women and men."

But Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told CBC News that for the government to pursue yet another appeal at the cost of taxpayers' dollars "would not make much sense when the ruling seems to be very, very clear and reaffirmed today."

With files from Alison Crawford and The Canadian Press