Update: see previous post – September 16, 2015 Harper Will Go to the Supreme Court to Ban Niqabs At Citizenship Ceremonies, September 15, 2015 Harper’s Conservatives Lose Attempt to Ban Niqabs At Citizenship Ceremonies
Conservative Denis Lebel says the feds will ask that Tuesday’s decision quashing the niqab ban be set aside until the Supreme Court hears an appeal the Conservatives are seeking.
OTTAWA—The highly charged issue of face coverings worn by would-be Canadians at citizenship ceremonies was thrust into the election campaign when the Conservatives challenged a recent court decision quashing the so-called niqab ban.
The federal government said Friday it is asking a judge to temporarily set aside a recent Federal Court of Appeal decision allowing women to wear face coverings while taking the oath of citizenship.
The government has already said it will seek leave to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and Friday’s move is intended to prevent citizenship candidates from taking the oath with their faces covered until the Supreme Court can hear the appeal.
The result is Zunera Ishaq, the devout, 29-year-old Toronto Muslim who successfully argued against the niqab ban in court, may not be able to become a citizen soon enough to cast a ballot on Oct. 19 after all.
“It’s very important to her and I’m sure she’s very disappointed,” her lawyer Lorne Waldman told the Star. “She was very anxious. She really wanted to get her citizenship because she really, really wanted to vote.”
Waldman said his firm will try to get the federal government’s lawyers to go to court immediately so this next phase of the case might be settled in time for Ishaq to have a chance to vote in the election. “I’m sure she wants us to push ahead as much as we can,” he said.
Ishaq argued in court that the ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies violates the Citizenship Act, which says candidates must be allowed the greatest possible religious freedom when they take the oath.
The government appealed the original Federal Court decision, but lost. A three-judge panel at the Federal Court of Appeal ruled from the bench on Tuesday, saying they wanted to proceed quickly in upholding the original Federal Court decision so that Ishaq could become a citizen in time to vote.
But Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said there is wide support for the niqab ban.
“Look, when someone joins the Canadian family, there are times in our open, tolerant, pluralistic society that as part of our interactions with each other we reveal our identity through revealing our face,” he said in Calgary.
Asked why the Conservative government is moving now to seek a stay of the appeal court decision rather than waiting until after the Oct. 19 election, Harper told the media: “The reason why now is because we had a court ruling that we’re responding to expeditiously.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it is appalling the government would go to so much trouble to keep one person from having the right to cast a ballot.
“That is completely irresponsible,” he said in Montreal.
“Canada defends the rights of minorities, we respect people’s rights. That’s what we will always do. This government quite frankly is demonstrating time and time again its lack of respect for people’s rights and freedoms.”
The government has spent more than $250,000 in legal costs on the case, according to information obtained from the government by the Liberals.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair noted the courts have set the blame squarely on the current government’s shoulders for imposing an unlawful rule.
“We will respect the courts,” he told reporters in Regina. “In the same way courts guarantee the freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the courts are there to guarantee the freedom of religion.”
Trudeau and Mulcair have said they would not go to court to try to reinstate the ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies.
In a statement early Friday announcing the government’s legal move, Denis Lebel, Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, said, “Both Justin and Thomas Mulcair are offside with Canadians on this issue. They owe Canadians an explanation for why they think someone should be able to hide their identity while taking the oath of citizenship.”
However, lawyers point out that the issue is a question of religious principle, not of identity, since would-be citizens who wear a veil must remove it to identify themselves separately to a female government official before obtaining citizenship.
“It’s fairly clear that the motivations behind this are political and the government seems to think that this is a wedge issue that will appeal to some of the people who vote for the Conservative party,” Waldman said.
The Conservatives said, if re-elected, they would introduce legislation banning face coverings during citizenship oaths within 100 days. “We will bring forth legislation that makes this crystal clear,” Harper said.
The niqab ban was inspired in part by Quebec’s experience with the so-called charter of values, a document introduced by the Parti Québécois government, which proposed banning the display of overtly religious symbols by people in the public sector.
While the charter, which was never passed into law, was extensively criticized and partly blamed for the defeat of the PQ government in 2014, the issue of the niqab still resonates in the province, where the Conservatives hope to increase their seat count.
That’s likely why it was left to Lebel, a Conservative candidate in Quebec, to announce the plans to seek a stay, rather than Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who is not running for re-election.
It was only a few days ago that Ishaq, who moved to Ontario from Pakistan in 2008 to join her husband, was expressing her excitement over the courts’ rejection of the niqab ban introduced by the Conservative government in 2011.
“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.
Evolution of the Niqab Battle
With files from The Canadian Press
2011 — The Conservatives’ Jason Kenney, then immigration minister, issues a directive for citizenship judges to require Muslim women to remove their niqabs before taking citizenship oath.
October 2014 — Zunera Ishaq of Toronto takes the government to court, arguing the niqab ban violates her rights.
February 2015 — Federal Court of Canada rules it is “unlawful” for Ottawa to order would-be citizens to remove their face-covering veil when taking the oath of citizenship. Harper says decision will be appealed.
Sept. 15, 2015 — Federal Court of Appeal rejects government appeal and upholds earlier ruling.
Sept. 16 — Conservative government says it will seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Sept. 18 — Government says it will seek to have the decision allowing veils to be worn at citizenship ceremonies temporarily set aside until the Supreme Court can hear the appeal.