OTTAWA—Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says he is studying whether to introduce a law — like Quebec’s — that would require Muslim women who wear a niqab to unveil their faces when delivering public services as an employee of the government, or receiving them as a citizen.
In a move that sharpens the anti-niqab rhetoric that has emerged on the election campaign trail, Harper told CBC television that his government has every intention of taking an even stronger stand against the wearing of the veil worn by some Muslim women in which only the eyes are visible.
“Quebec has legislation on this. And we are looking at that legislation of openness and equality and that is what we want to promote,” said Harper.
“And look, the vast, vast majority of Canadians understand our position on this and are behind it. The other parties have made a decision to make this an issue because they are frankly offside on public opinion, but that’s their choice.”
CBC host Rosemary Barton probed Harper’s insistence that citizenship ceremonies are no place for a face veil, and asked why is it okay for the government to tell a woman how to dress and how to live.
Harper said, “Canadians are strongly united around the view that there are times when you reveal your identity. And of course there’s the broader value question of the men and women we are trying to promote in this country.”
He rejected any suggestion his rhetoric is stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
“I don’t think you can use that kind of thing to discredit legitimate political debate. Violence against women is unacceptable, which is why our government has brought forward laws to crack down on violence.”
But in a separate interview with CBC radio, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the Conservative leader of just that and appealed to him directly to stop.
“To the prime minister directly: Stop this before someone truly gets hurt. We’ve had women attacked in the streets for wearing hijabs and niqabs. This is not Canada,” Trudeau told Chris Hall, host of The House.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Harper is trying to change the channel from his government’s dismal economic record.
“I can tell you that in my 35 years of public service, I’ve never seen anybody like that (wearing a niqab),” Mulcair told reporters in Surrey, B.C. “What I can tell you I’ve seen is 400,000 good manufacturing jobs lost on Mr. Harper’s watch.”
Harper’s declaration that he may crack down further on those who would wear a full face veil was first telegraphed by the Conservative government last spring at the time Quebec tabled its religious neutrality bill. Harper’s multiculturalism minister, Tim Uppal, was asked to comment on Quebec’s Bill 62, and told reporters after a caucus meeting in June: “We broadly support Quebec’s legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services.”
The Conservatives already have lost two attempts in the courts to defend a ministerial order that declared women appearing at public citizenship ceremonies should unveil when swearing the oath of citizenship. A Toronto woman, Zunera Ishaq, challenged the policy, and won at the Federal Court of Appeal. On Monday the same court refused to grant the government a stay or its ruling pending further appeal by the Conservatives.
Harper has already promised to reintroduce legislation that would enshrine the policy in a statute, not as a ministerial guideline. But it remains to be seen whether the policy would be found to be unconstitutional as an unjustifiable limit on freedom of religion and expression under the Charter of Rights. So far, courts have not ruled on that aspect.
In a speech last May on the value of tolerance, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin did not say where the courts would draw the line in specific disputes involving niqabs.
She pointed to the debate that raged in Quebec over the previous government’s proposed Charter of Values and “what limits the state could impose on religious practices of people engaged in the provision of public services.” McLachlin said it illustrates such questions are “neither clear nor easy to decide.”
But she did point to the high court’s decision in a Toronto case that backed a judge’s power to order a witness to remove a niqab where an accused’s right to a full defence to criminal charges is at stake.
McLachlin outlined three principles she said are ultimately “essential” to maintain a tolerant society: “acceptance of the inherent human dignity of every person; inclusive institutions and cultural attitudes in civil society; and the rule of law.”
The focus must be on “bridging divides instead of deepening them,” she said. “Above all, we need, in all our institutions, religious and secular, leaders who understand pluralism and the basic ethic of tolerance that it requires.”
In the television interview Tuesday, Harper defended the citizenship oath unveiling order, saying “This a Canadian public ceremony. And certainly, Canadians have a right to establish the basic values around that ceremony that are reflective of our basic values as a society.”