The niqab: Trivial politics, or election difference-maker? -

The niqab: Trivial politics, or election difference-maker?

Is the niqab truly a ‘false debate’, or the kind of rare emotional issue that can sway undecided voters?

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, in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

(Patrick Doyle/CP)

If the Harper government ultimately gets its way—if niqab-wearing Muslim immigrants are forced to momentarily unveil their faces on the day they’re sworn in as Canadian citizens—how many women would the policy actually affect? A couple of dozen per year? A hundred, maybe? Whatever the sum, it would be minuscule compared to all the attention the issue has generated.

Practically speaking, the Tories’ plan would infringe on the tiniest percentage: a few people, for a few minutes of their lives. The Conservatives are not trying to legislate a ban on Muslim face coverings. What they’re saying is that if a woman in a niqab wants to become Canadian (to join the national “family,” as Stephen Harper puts it), she must be willing to show herself during the official citizenship ceremony. When the event has finished, she’ll be free to cover up again and be on her way.

In a country grappling with much weightier challenges—our teetering economy, for one—it’s fair to wonder why the election campaign has become so fixated on something that will have zero impact on nearly every single voter. National Post columnist Andrew Coyne was among those who couldn’t fathom why the question of “whether a few dozen women” can wear a veil at a citizenship ceremony consumed so much airtime during last week’s French leaders’ debate. “It’s ridiculous,” he said during a heated segment of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National. “It’s not an issue that is germane to the future of this country. It is a trivial issue in the grand scheme of things.”

But is it trivial? Is it truly a “false debate,” to borrow a phrase from Green Leader Elizabeth May? A “weapon of mass distraction,” as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair described it? Or is that symbolic image—a Muslim woman being allowed to shield her face while pledging the oath of citizenship—a window into a much deeper debate about the core values Canadians hold dear?

In other words, is it that rare type of visceral, emotional issue that can sway an undecided voter?

“These are very rarely ballot-booth issues, but they can be conditioning issues that frame your general sense of: ‘Where do I belong in the political spectrum?’ ” says Frank Graves, president of the polling firm Ekos Research Associates. “I don’t think people will say: ‘I’m going to vote simply because of the niqab issue.’ But I do think it’s a factor. To say it’s not affecting the voter outlook is wrong. It simply is.”

The now-raging debate dates back to 2011, when then-immigration minister Jason Kenney implemented an abrupt new policy that prohibited people from covering their faces during citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaq, a 29-year-old Pakistani, challenged the rule in Federal Court, arguing that the Citizenship Act ensures all candidates be given the greatest possible religious freedom when they take their oath. (She insists she would have no objection to showing her face to an official before the ceremony, but is adamant, for religious reasons, about swearing her oath in a niqab.)

Although the Federal Court sided with Ishaq, Ottawa promptly appealed. The niqab “is rooted in a culture that is anti-women,” Stephen Harper told the House of Commons. When the government lost again last week—and signalled yet another appeal, this time to the Supreme Court—the controversy inevitably spilled onto the campaign trail.

“What is really being tested here are the limits of tolerance,” says Darrell Bricker, a pollster with Ipsos Global. “You’ve got one group, lawyers and civil libertarians, saying this smacks of intolerance. But the problem is [that] this is the type of intolerance that the vast majority of the Canadian public doesn’t see as intolerance. They see it as establishing the boundaries of acceptable social norms.”

The latest polls certainly confirm that. One, conducted in March by Forum Research, found that two-thirds of Canadians (67 per cent) oppose the wearing of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies, while an Ipsos poll found a whopping 88 per cent support for the government’s stance. A Leger survey, commissioned by the Privy Council Office over the winter but not released until last week, tallied similar results: 82 per cent of the 3,000 people surveyed agreed with the no-niqab policy.

“Participants felt that those who attended such ceremonies needed to be clearly identifiable and did not think it made sense that someone should be able to hide [her] face,” said the Leger report. “Other participants felt that this was, first and foremost, a value-based issue. To them, this was about new immigrants embracing Canadian values when being welcomed as new citizens. Removing [her] niqab or burka was the normal thing to do in Canada and, therefore, the Canadian government was right in issuing this direction about showing their faces.”

Although the policy will affect such a scant few, the controversy clearly points to a much deeper issue, Bricker says. As every poll confirmed, more than half of Canadians consider the Islamic veil to be a symbol of oppression, despite the fact that many women who wear a niqab dispute that assumption. And, according to one Leger survey conducted in March (not the one commissioned by Ottawa), 60 per cent of respondents said niqabs should be banned, not only during citizenship oaths, but in public spaces such as government offices and courthouses.

“To the average person, regardless of the explanation provided by the person wearing it, the niqab does suggest some form of oppression of women,” Bricker says. “Whether it is or isn’t, it’s a complicated argument, and smarter people than I can have that discussion. But the average Canadian looks at it and says: ‘There is something wrong with it.’ When you’re living in a liberal democratic society, particularly one that has made such tremendous progress on issues like the status of women and the need for equality, to see something like this just rubs people really the wrong way.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the anti-niqab sentiment coincides with a noticeable shift in Canadians’ overall attitude toward immigration. Ten years ago, only one-quarter of citizens believed there were too many immigrants moving to Canada. Today, according to a March report from EKOS, the number who agree with that statement has climbed to nearly half (46 per cent), with 41 per cent saying the government is letting in too many visible minorities. “We haven’t had the same kind of fierce debates about immigration and race that have torn apart Europe and America, but some of the evidence suggests we may be moving a bit in that direction,” Graves says. “This allergy to pluralism and multiculturalism, which is fairly recent, is actually growing.”

Which may explain why such a seemingly trivial piece of policy—banning niqabs during citizenship ceremonies—triggers such passionate reactions. “There is no question that it is currently sorting the electorate more than issues they say are of greater concern, notably, a moribund economy,” the Ekos study concluded. “It is, however, the first really explicit political debate about values that we have seen in Canada for some time.”

But is the niqab question pressing enough to actually decide a particular riding? Could it be a legitimate difference-maker on Oct. 19? It could in Quebec, perhaps, where the NDP holds most of its support, but whose opposition to the Conservatives’ no-niqab stance goes against the overwhelming opinion of Quebecers. In Ontario? Not likely, especially since the provincial government has vowed to intervene against the feds if the Ishaq case does reach the Supreme Court. “In the Prairies, maybe it does resonate,” says Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research. “But those are Tory seats anyway. Whether the Tories get 45 or 50 or 55 per cent of the vote, what does it matter?”

When Forum released its poll in March (the one that found 67 per cent of Canadians oppose face veils at citizenship ceremonies), Bozinoff said the niqab issue “will be little more than a sideshow” in the election, because the policy “directly affects such a vanishingly small number of women.” Six months later, despite the growing intensity of the debate, he is sticking to his prediction.

“The thing about a long campaign like this [is] it’s unlikely for a flash-type issue to come and swing things, because things get really debated out,” he says. Consider the Duffy trial, for example, or the Syrian refugee crisis. “They kind of got talked out in the end and people moved on. We still have a whole campaign to go, about three weeks, which is almost the length of a regular campaign. It’s hard to imagine, three weeks from now, we’re still going to be talking about niqabs.”


The niqab: Trivial politics, or election difference-maker?

  1. One person. Ten people. “A hundred, maybe?”

    It’s the tip of an iceberg, people.

    Look closely at the U.I.K. (United Islamic Kingdom). Ask any ex-U.K. citizen if, given the opportunity, they would return to live there. I don’t need to tell you the answer.

    It may need a Canadian constitutional change. So be it.

    • exactly, the point is that many in this country are oblivious to the social issues that this erodes as more and more of them move into communities and remain culturally ? .. stuck.. I’d say abusively stuck as most of the females in those countries do not understand that they live in abuse.. it’s normal for them to be abused >>> ? that is their legacy from history … we need to remember who gave us the freedoms .. and it wasn’t policy it was soldiers.. so embrace the history of how you have freedom and you can embrace your freedom with the dignity every fallen soldier deserves.

      • Huh? Soldiers can work for the other side to. Soldiers enforce the policies of the government, if they went against government they’d be rebels.

        Soldiers didn’t give us freedom, they fought for it. It is constitutions that give people their freedoms and it is soldiers that defend and uphold it. They do not make policy, they do not make laws. If tomorrow the government decides that it is policy to take people out onto the street and round them up and put them on trains, they would send soldiers to implement their policy.

  2. Nobody has forced these women to apply for Canadian citizenship just like when I took out my citezenship I fully expexted to I’ve by the laws and CUSTOMS of Canada. These countries would not let us choose which laws and customs to live by if moved there. We do not have to all look or dress the same or have the same beliefs but when it comes to citizenship you must adapt to Canada’s ways

    • “We do not have to all look or dress the same or have the same beliefs but when it comes to
      citizenship you must adapt to Canada’s ways”

      That made no sense. On the one hand you say you don’t have to conform, and then on the other you say you do. So which is it? Do we have the right to wear what we want without government interference or not? And what do you mean “Canada’s ways”. For the longest time, Canada’s Ways was either British or French, no Italians, no Irish, no Chinese. So what ways are you talking you about?

  3. This is a complete non-issue. Why would any intelligent individual take offense at the idea that a person could dress as they pleased for a purely ceremonial event?

  4. ……………………………..SQUIRREL!………………….

  5. Well, IMO it’s certainly easy to associate a number of negative connotations with the niqab. And, I will in fact admit to being somewhat creeped out by it.

    Having said that, IMO a liberal democracy should strive to afford individuals the maximum amount of freedom that’s possible without impinging on the rights of others. And it’s really difficult for me to see how wearing a niqab during the citizenship ceremony impinges on others, given that the issue of identification has already been addressed.

    Consequently, if a woman wants to wear a niqab during a citizenship ceremony, then I don’t believe it’s the place of the state to say that she can’t.

  6. Hi, for me this is an issue. I am very much against the face covering. Not only for the citizenship ceremony , which in my opinion is huge, but also in day to day life. This is only used by fundamental Muslims which is enforced by the male population. I have very strong feelings that if people come to this country then they should leave their extreme views on women’s/children’s rights back where they came from. That does not mean then that they need to give up their faith. I would not ask anyone to do this. But this issue is bigger then the two or three dozen women that this would affect. It is to the bones of what we accept for women in this country on a national level. The face covering humanizes people. Like it or not that is how I feel, and I will not support any gov’t that accepts this kind of value from any nation. My own or anyone elses. And I am an undecided voter.

    • sorry just to correct dehumanizes people/women.

  7. Zunera Ishaq says that she refuses to show her face in public, because of her religious beliefs…

    I have read the Quran many times, & nowhere does it say that women need to cover their faces. this is a cultural tradition, not a religious one.

    If we need to change, or add a law, lets do it now!!

  8. C’mon guys……look this stuff up eh?

    Niqab was around long before Islam. It’s not religious

    If you want to stop women wearing what men or religions say they should…….you can start with Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites…….nuns.

    Women here wear veils…..confirmation, bridal, net, mourning veils…

    You know what the SCOC will say….men can wear what they want… can women….

    We have gender equality

    And I must say that a plaid niqab is about as Canadian as it can get. LOL

  9. Elizabeth May spoke better than she knew when she insisted that the niqab affair is a false question. In fact, NO issue of constitutional or human rights is actually before the courts. Writing in last Wednesday’s “La Presse,” Prof. Jean Leclair, professor of constitutional law at the University of Montreal, attempted to set the record straight. Mr. Justice Boswell of the Federal Court, in his decision last February, explicitly REFUSED to rule on the constitutional question. His ruling, which as we know the Federal Court of Appeal has upheld, is based on a quite different point of law.

    The crux of the matter is that the regulation of 2011, which bans the niqab in citizenship court, was enacted on the sole authority of the Minister of Immigration, then Jason Kenny. This ran contrary to the prior regulation, approved by Cabinet and passed into law, that the citizenship judge should “have the oath of citizenship sworn with dignity and solemnity, while allowing the greatest possible liberty as regards the profession of religious faith or the solemn affirmation of the new citizens.” Prof. Leclair continues:

    “To sum up, and here is the whole irony of this ‘scandal,’ what the judge tried to do here is to limit the arbitrary power of a minister…to recall a very old constitutional principle, namely that those who hold power are not above the law…
    “If the government wishes to change the law, they have only to do so. Surely, the problem of any new law’s conformity to the Charter will be raised one day. But that is not the problem right now.
    “We have to give the Harper government due credit. They have their Machiavelli at their fingertips. The government is not ignorant of what I just explained. They know there is scant likelihood that the Supreme Court will even hear their appeal…But they prefer to go ahead with the appeal so they may bash the courts, saying, ‘You see: once again the justices are imposing their decisions on us.’ In short, the prime minister yet again displays, as plain as day, his disdain for the law.”

    Harper has ginned up this issue in a completely false light, laying a trap for his opponents into which they have unhappily fallen. Naturally, M. Duceppe, who knows a bit of Machiavelli himself, has been only too happy to play along with Harper’s game, avid to get what revenge he can on the NDP for reducing his party to deserved irrelevance.

    This subject was taken up again at greater length in Saturday’s La Presse by their columnist, Yves Boisvert. Mr. Boisvert, you may recall, was one of the moderators of the French-language debate. He must have been feeling like he too was snookered. Here is a link to his column. I’ll be happy to translate the salient points, if needed.