Joanna Smith, The Star, December 12, 2011
Muslim women who wear the niqab and other face-covering garments will now have to lift or remove their veils while they take the oath of Canadian citizenship in front of a room full of people.
“This is not simply a practical measure. It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Monday as he announced the changes in Montreal.
“The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly.”
The new rules require, effective immediately, anyone wishing to become a Canadian citizen to show their faces at public ceremonies as they swear the oath of citizenship, which means that Muslim women wearing a niqab or burka must remove them or else remain permanent residents.
The change came hastily as far as government policy is concerned, with none of the news releases or background material that usually accompanies such announcements.
Neither Kenney nor his department was able to provide any statistics on the number of women who have covered their faces during citizenship ceremonies, but departmental spokeswoman Nancy Caron said it used to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
It appears the issue began with four women in Mississauga.
Newly elected Conservative MP Wladyslaw Lizon (Mississauga East–Cooksville) called up Kenney a few weeks ago to tell him that he had just left a citizenship ceremony in his riding.
“Four women had taken the oath wearing full burkas and veils,” Kenney told reporters Lizon informed him. “He raised this with the citizenship judge beforehand to say, ‘Is this illicit?’ And the citizenship judge said, ‘My hands are tied. The rule is that we have to permit them to take the oath.”
Lizon confirmed the gist of the story in an emailed statement from his office.
There was more.
“(Lizon) later noted as he was leaving the ceremony that these four people and a man who was accompanying them got into a car with New York state licence plates to drive away,” said Kenney, who added that he later asked about it at a meeting of citizenship judges in Ottawa and those from large urban areas told him it happens every week.
That was enough for Kenney, but not for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), an Ottawa-based Muslim civil rights organization that accused the Conservative government of basing harmful policy on anecdotal evidence.
“This decision will have a damaging effect on our democracy because it forces those who wear the niqab to choose between their religious convictions and adopting Canadian citizenship,” CAIR-CAN’s acting executive director Ihsaan Gardee said in a news release.
The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments last week in the case of a female complaint who wants to testify against male relatives in a sexual assault case while wearing the niqab.
David Butt, the lawyer representing the unnamed woman, said that while his case pits the religious rights of his client against the rights of the defendants to face their accuser, there is not a strong enough argument against extending Charter rights to women who want to cover their faces at a citizenship ceremony.
That is because a microphone could help judges hear the woman swearing the oath and a private check of documents in the presence of a female official would be enough to verify the identity of the applicant, Butt said.
“What you have is simply an announcement that a government is going to interfere with a Charter-protected right without even anything coming close to a valid reason,” Butt said.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said Kenney should have waited until the Supreme Court decides on the niqab case.
“This is all about taking a decision which the minister feels will be politically popular in the short term,” Rae said. “For the long term, we would be all wiser to have a look at the Supreme Court decision and see how they balance these issues in their own mind.”
Caron said anyone wearing a full or partial face covering will be told when they check in for the ceremony that they must remove them in order to become citizens that day and then be reminded once again by the clerk before oath begins.
Candidates for citizenship will now also be informed of the new requirement during their first interview.
“While the department does not keep stats on this, the requirement for citizenship candidates to show their faces is not expected to affect a large number of people,” Caron wrote in an email Monday.