Justin Trudeau and the niqab

What Justin Trudeau says and what the Federal Court said

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau stood and said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s side was being divisive, then Harper stood and said that it was Trudeau who was being divisive.

There was the semblance of a question here—about when the government’s budget will be presented—but mostly, Trudeau wanted to segue from his speech of the night before. So he made allusions to the remarks of Conservatives, then wondered when the government might puts its energies toward new economic policy. And that gave Harper an opportunity to respond to Trudeau’s remarks of Monday evening.

The two went back and forth in French, then the Prime Minister switched mid-answer to English, presumably, for the sake of ensuring that what he had to say about the Liberal leader would be most understood.

“However, the leader of the Liberal party continues to bring up his position on the niqab, not seeming to understand why almost all Canadians oppose the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies,” Harper said, proceeding to jab his finger assertively.

“It is very easy to understand. We do not allow people to cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies. Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women? That is unacceptable to Canadians, unacceptable to Canadian women and that is why this government—”

The Prime Minister had exceeded his time limit, so the end of that sentence is officially lost. The Conservatives stood to applaud. So, too, perhaps notably, did Bloc Québécois MP Louis Plamondon. At the use of the phrase “anti-women,” Trudeau had reacted in his seat as if Harper had said something he shouldn’t have. (As if this particular debate did not cover enough ideas already, apparently we can now add how to parse what constitutes “anti-women.”)

“This is the crassest kind of politics, and I was proud to denounce it last night,” the Liberal leader told reporters afterward.


Paul Wells: A Liberal take on liberty

Interview: Jason Kenney responds to Justin Trudeau’s speech

Trudeau’s speech in Toronto was at least more interesting than the usual fare—another interesting moment in a consistently interesting political run. In places, it is a lovely tribute to Canadian exceptionalism. As a statement of political principle, it is potentially useful. On the niqab, it is a significant engagement with philosophy, religion and public policy.

“You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up it is a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights,” he said. “But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”

Had he moved on then, he would have been on somewhat surer footing today (though perhaps his speech would have been less noted). But then came these next two sentences.

“But what’s even worse than what they’re saying is what they really mean. We all know what is going on here. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith,” he said.

And then came these four sentences.

“This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of ‘none is too many.’ ”

Here, Trudeau brought infamous prejudice and hardship to bear on a very serious allegation.

Even if Trudeau did not quite declare an equation—the phrasing of “the spirit of”allows for a fairly wide interpretation of how the niqab might relate to historic events—his invocation of great shame implied great shame and invited complaints about his perspective and fairness and tone. Mind you, a debate about current attitudes toward Muslims as compared to previous moments in our history wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; Trudeau’s references might be found unwarranted, but it’s generally useful to seek perspective. (Unfortunately for the Conservatives, whatever grounds they had to loudly lament Trudeau’s analogical perspective were trampled by the Public Safety minister’s decision to invoke the Holocaust this morning to defend Bill C-51. I look forward to a debate about which of these analogies is least justified.)

But even then, an accusation of fostering prejudice is nearly as serious an accusation as one political figure can level against another.

It would be easier to say Trudeau had crossed a line if there were a more obviously discernible line at this point—though Liberals shouldn’t comfort themselves by how sharply politics has been practised by others. His accusation rests on intent, and the evidentiary standard for findings of guilt in that regard should be high. Of course, for many, how one feels about his accusation likely depends on how one feels about him and how one feels about the government. As simple politics, it seems plausible that last night’s speech was, and will be, a net positive: the Liberal leader planting a flag, setting up a contrast of his choosing, and putting the burden on the Conservatives to defend themselves. Or perhaps the public will side en masse with the government’s position here. Jason Kenney used 11 tweets today to defend the government’s basic commitment to inclusion and to lament Trudeau’s tone. (The New Democrats are fussing over how Trudeau can square this speech with his position C-51.)

It is actually on the policy itself that Trudeau has the clearest advantage, and it is unfortunate for the Conservatives that what they have to defend is so problematic.

It would seem useful here to turn to the actual ruling of the Federal Court in the case of  Zunera Ishaq, which overturned the government’s attempt to ban the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath. What undid the government’s position was simple incoherence: The policy directive by the minister, Jason Kenney in his previous portfolio, conflicted with the regulations that govern the citizenship process. So while the directive demanded that the niqab be removed during the saying of the oath, the regulations instruct the citizenship judge to allow “the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or solemn affirmation thereof.” The regulations also do not require visual confirmation that an oath has been sworn, only that the applicant sign her name to a certificate bearing the oath. In the case of a discrepancy between the minister’s directive and the regulations, the judge ruled that the regulations took precedence.

And then there is paragraph 30 of the ruling: “The Respondent argues that this application is premature. In its view, the Policy is not mandatory and citizenship judges are free not to apply it.”

Unless the judge has misunderstood the arguments, this seems a remarkable concession by the government. One imagines the government’s lawyers might have thought they had a novel argument for the case’s dismissal—that the ban on the niqab was not mandatory and, therefore, “there is no way to know what would have happened, had the Applicant attended the ceremony and refused to uncover her face.” But, as the judge noted, this clashed with both the public statements of the minister and private statements of government officials.

On those grounds, the government’s claim of an option was dismissed by Justice Boswell. But that doesn’t quite absolve the government of the contradiction. In the House today, the Prime Minister said, “We do not allow people to cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies.” But in the court, the Prime Minister’s government would seem to have argued that we do allow for people to cover their faces, so long as the presiding citizenship judge agrees. So which is it? And if it’s the former, why were the government’s lawyers arguing the latter?

(I’ve asked Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office for an explanation and will post what I receive.)

Even without that contradiction, there would seem to remain very practical issues. All applicants for citizenship apparently sign a written declaration of the oath. As Justice Boswell noted, Ishaq was willing to remove her niqab in private to confirm her identity. The judge also noted that “any requirement that a candidate for citizenship actually be seen taking the oath would make it impossible not just for a niqab-wearing woman to obtain citizenship, but also for a mute person or a silent monk.” Ishaq’s lawyer argued “that there is no rational connection between ensuring that the oath was taken and visual inspection, since such a method could only confirm that the participants’ mouths were moving; citizenship officials are not lip readers.”

If the concern here is that a woman in a niqab cannot be seen taking the oath, could a private oath-taking not be arranged? If the concern here is that a woman in a niqab cannot readily be heard taking the oath, could an official not stand within earshot of her?

Put another way: Is it not possible to agree on a reasonable arrangement that preserves religious freedom?

Perhaps not, if you wish to assert nothing more than a principle of additional communal declaration that you believe should trump religious freedom. If so, you might want to suggest that the government put that requirement into regulation.

The Conservatives were quite proud to champion this ban a month ago in a data-mining letter to supporters. “We believe that when someone becomes a Canadian citizen, [he or she] should embrace our culture and everything that makes us proud to be Canadian,” read the letter signed by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. “That should be done without interference, freely and openly.” This was meant to celebrate not only the desire for a ban on the niqab, but the government’s intention to appeal the Federal Court ruling.

The legal basis for the government’s position will thus be tested again and, in the meantime, the practical and philosophical basis for the ban should be tested anew in the public realm. It was on this point that Trudeau was strongest. And while we debate religion and feminism and all the rest, we shouldn’t entirely forget about the practical questions raised by the court’s ruling.

But that the particular policy in question seems almost entirely symbolic is perhaps fitting, if we are now in a discussion about what it all means.


Justin Trudeau and the niqab

  1. Well said, Mr. Wherry.
    The government seems to forget, or ignores, a basic tenet of Human Rights.
    The tyranny of the majority cannot overwhelm, or subjugate, the rights of a minority.

    I am flabbergasted that the government seems to believe it’s alright to try to do just that, for political purposes.

    They demean themselves by doing this, and, as our representatives, demean us by doing this.

    Shame on them.

    • Does a woman not have a human right to grow up believing she doesn’t need to cover her face in public? Is it not completely tragic to you that there are daughters of women who “choose” to wear the niqab that will grow up, in Canada, believing it’s completely normal for some women to show their face in public?

      • And how does barring those women from becoming citizens unless they abandon their religious practice help them? What if the choice is so appalling to them that they choose to leave Canada, along with their daughters, to live some place where they will never have the freedom to abandon the niqab?

        • Why do you keep insisting this is a “religious practice”? As Kenney pointed out, most Muslim women do not observe it and many have asserted it is tribal or cultural, not religious, in its derivation. Are you a Muslim scholar, so as to be able to say it is a “religious practice” so definitively?

          And even if it is, it is clearly outside of the mainstream of Muslim practice in Canada, as can be quickly surmised by walking through any public space in any large Canadian city. Is it, then, every religious practice, regardless of how obscure or extreme, that you think should be afforded Charter protection? How about polygamy? Arranged child marriages? Female circumcision? Please let us know where the line beyond which obscure practices engaged in by a smattering of extremists are not covered by the Charter is. Or perhaps, as I suspect, you don’t consider there to even be one.

          • Are you suggesting the niqab is obscure?

            It is a religious practice because the women who wear it say it is.

            Finally, all your examples fail, because they involve a practice that is harmful to people who are unable to make these choices for themselves. There is no comparison between wearing a niqab and forcing a child to undergo circumcision, or forced a child into marriage. At the same time, an adult female who willingly enters into an arranged marriage, or willingly undergoes circumcision, would be permitted to do so.

          • The niqab is obscure – the overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslim women do not wear it. If your standard of determination of “religious practice” is “the people who do it say it is”, you are delusional and, what’s more, are calling the Muslims who say it is not liars. How does polygamy involve “people who are unable to make these choices themselves”?

          • It is my understanding that the polygamous cultures in Canada have child brides. It also affects the children born out of these marriages. But at the end of the day, if those things can be resolved I do not personally care if people want to practice polygamy. It may be cool to have another husband!

            It is not obscure. If it were Kenny would not feel the need to try to stop it.

          • Please please tell me your a prominent Liberal and have the ear of the Dauphin. Your view that Charter protection extends to “whatever floats your boat” is a clear winner and deserves to figure prominently in the party platform come October. Sophie can start picking the wallpaper for 24 Sussex!

  2. What Justin Trudeau said, is that he believes Muslim tradition trumps Canadian values. I, and I believe most Canadians, would disagree. You’re free to practice whatever religion you want in this country, but you can not subjugate women using your religion as a defense.

  3. Does Justin Trudeau understand that most of us see that the face covering nigab represents the worst thing about a religious symbol ?
    Abuse and subjagation of women.
    Maybe the woman defending this means well, and maybe she is sincere. But so many other women are abused and forced , did that woman consider this ?
    Now I see that Justin Trudeau is as vacuous as his detrctors say he is, and I refer to his critics in the Liberal Party.

    • Yes – abused and forced. And if her husband decides she cannot become a citizen because she cannot remove the niqab, and forces her to return to a country where she will never have that freedom, what has Canada done to help her?

    • What gives you or Harper the right to tell people what is the right for how women want practice a religion. Personally, I detest religion, period, I feel it’s just another indoctrination of people minds, K sera sera, but I have the intelligence enough to respect the right of people to choose how they want to display their religious values in this country, whether I like them or not. Live and Let Live. I watched Harper in QP yesterday, say women shouldn’t cover their faces with niqabs or nijabs when swearing in at immigration ceremonies, but when I looked behind Mr. Harper in the HOCs on his mantle piece, behind him, I saw a gentleman sitting behind him with a beard down to his belt and turbin on his head, and that’s his right to do so, but I thought it was a bit hypocritical of Harper to try and stop a Muslim women from wearing her choice of garb, whether he agrees or not, and not have anything to say about the MP sitting behind him and his face and head covered(oh, your going to tell me, it’s his religious symbols), did that MP have his face covered when he was sworn in as a Canadian citizen, if he did or people of his faith have, than this is nothing than a double standard.

      • Catholic priests used to run around in dresses maybe they still do. What kind of a message of perversion did that send?
        Ban those dresses. Ban those nuns in huge scarves.

  4. There is always a time when personal freedoms cannot usurp the laws of the land. PM Pearson had to contend with Doukabours back in the 60s and did put this pacifist group down. He forced children to attend public schools and forced them to be separate from their families for 6 years.

    The Muslim groups arriving in Canada, a very free country, and yet many want to impose their values of subjecting women to nothing less than second class. It is a systemic issue from their homeland, not a religious issue. Canadians as a whole do not accept the positioning of women to second class Too many women have fought hard to be just where they are today. That does not mean we have reached a position of acceptability and much still needs to be done. Yet the Muslim groups are pushing back these gains and would even impose Sharia law if they could do so.

    It is not the tyranny of the majority as the cause of problems. Rather it is the tyranny of a small group wanting to usurp the laws of the land and the culture history of all Canada. Many of my Muslim friends do not agree with Sharia and are against using Islam as a base for terrorist actions. Freedom of religion, yes. But not to the point we must close our eyes to the torts on our own society.

    Pearson could put down a group of Doukabours and usurp their rights. it was right then as it would be today.

    • So you are suggesting Muslim immigrants are trying to force me to wear a niqab?

      Wow! And no one even told me!

  5. Trudeau’s speech in Toronto was at least more interesting than the usual fare—another interesting moment in a consistently interesting political run.+++++++++

    Get used to it Aaron… the best is yet to come. Justin had Blood and Guts Harper ill-at-ease…laughable, must disappoint the base. Too bad there are no closets in the HoC.

  6. A duly-elected Canadian who would promote the abolition of monarchy and refuse to take a public oath of allegiance to the Queen would be forbidden from taking his seat, will of the people of Canada or not, right to freedom of conscience guaranteed in the charter or not. His right to freedom of conscience does not trump his obligation to swear allegiance to the Queen.

    In a crowd of people, with one participant hiding their face, how is a public official capable of attesting that a person hiding their face swore allegiance? Why would we deny citizenship to a republican-to-the-bone immigrant from Ireland who refuses to swear allegiance to the Queen, yet afford citizenship to a person we cannot guarantee has swore allegiance to the Queen?

    • “In a crowd of people, with one participant hiding their face, how is a public official capable of attesting that a person hiding their face swore allegiance?”

      Really? This is a super duper huge monumental problem? Before Kenny drafted his little directive there were all kinds of problems with people swearing allegiance under cover of a veil who in fact do not have allegiance to this country? Wow. If only they had not worn the veil we would have known and prevented such an atrocity!

      The ridiculous lengths to which some people go to try to justify Harper’s position on this…

  7. There is no reason why the oath cannot be taken legally when wearing a niqab. The supreme court has ruled on this aspect of the discussion. So let’s put aside any argument that not wearing the niqab in a public setting for oath taking is needed to ensure a legal oath is taken.
    Our charter of freedom and rights basic philosophy is that unless a religious practice ( no matter how small that religion might be in numbers) poses a threat to others it cannot be banned. There is no threat to others from wearing a niqab. Hopefully most Canadians have thought this through, and agree it is sound.
    So what are we left with as a reason? Because as what Harper says, of what it symbolizes? If this is to be the basis of the decision , rather than the basic philosophy of our charter, then where is he getting precedent for that ? It seems tantamount to declaring that if the majority does not like a certain religion for whatever reasons it chooses, the majority has a right then to restrict its practices even when there is not direct threat to others. ( One cannot argue that seeing a woman wearing a niqab poses a risk to others . If so, then wearing it anywhere needs to be banned ).
    I cannot understand how anyone ,even if you are against certain Islamic practices and values, can agree to this ban, if at the same time you believe in freedom of religion and expression.
    It saddens me to think that Harper is leading us down a path of intolerance at a time when the world needs more tolerance of each other.
    If any symbol is accomplished with his ban , it is a symbol that Canadians are incapable of tolerating minorities.

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