National Column: Niqab issue a Tory boon

by Chantal Hebert

There is no consensus as to which of the five federal leaders – if any – won Thursday’s French-language election debate. But on the issue that briefly set the debate studio on fire, there is little doubt that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is winning the argument.

By the time Canada goes to the polls next month, the discussion as to whether Muslim women who wear the niqab should be required to unveil their faces to take the citizenship oath will have given way to other campaign themes.

But if any national party benefits from the controversy over the face-covering niqab, it will be the Conservatives. And if that happens, the Liberals and the New Democrats will – at least in part – have themselves to blame.

The unexpected emergence of the niqab issue as a campaign flashpoint has given Harper a rare opening in Quebec.

The province that most dislikes his party is home to the largest proportion of supporters of the Conservative niqab ban.

At the very least, having their party on the winning side of public opinion in Quebec will bring more Conservative sympathizers out of the closet; they will be more eager to proselytize on Harper’s behalf.

The status of veiled Muslim women in Canada’s citizenship courts is not in itself an automatic ballot box issue.

But many of the Quebecers who feel strongly about the niqab are also aligned with Harper on Canada’s military role in the international coalition fighting Islamic State extremists. More than a few support his
anti-terrorism agenda.

In a debate exchange as revealing as the flare-up over the niqab, the Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe was even more vocal in his defence of the need to take the battle against ISIS to the Middle East than his Conservative rival.

Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair both believe that a veil ban is de facto irreconcilable with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and they repeated as much at the debate.

They may be right, but their case might have been more effectively advanced if they had first admitted that the individual rights guaranteed in the charter are subject to what the courts determine to be a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society and, second, agreed that this is a worthwhile question to be put to the Supreme Court by the next government.

The latter is not something Harper has undertaken. He is appealing the quashing of the niqab ban by the Federal Court on technical grounds.

Using the argument of the charter as if it were a string of garlic cloves designed to ward off an unwelcome issue is not only inefficient, it does a disservice to the fundamental freedoms the Liberals and the New Democrats purport to champion.

The Conservatives did all they could to have the niqab on the election radar – including keeping a lost legal cause alive to have a peg for their veil ban rhetoric. But they did not manufacture the strong societal consensus that backs that ban. It is not just in Quebec that a strong majority is on side with the Conservatives’ take on the niqab.

Some might see dropping the niqab hot potato into the lap of the Supreme Court as a cop-out, but sooner or later the top court is bound to have a say in this debate.

Quebec’s national assembly is currently debating a Liberal bill that requires provincial government services to be delivered and received with uncovered faces. It will inevitably be challenged in court.

If and when the Supreme Court gives its take on the extent of religious freedoms, its conclusions could have a more decisive impact on public opinion than all of Mulcair and Trudeau’s admonitions.

At the time of the Parti QuÈbÈcois plan to impose a secular dress code on Quebec’s public servants, Pauline Marois’s government took pains to dismiss the probability that the project was at odds with the
Canadian and the province’s charters. The PQ feared support for its securalism agenda would decline if the courts concluded that it trampled on fundamental freedoms.

There are those who believe the topic of the niqab is a trivial one or who feel its appearance in the campaign narrative sullies the election conversation.

And yet, under the guise of this discussion, voters are getting a taste of one of the fundamental debates of the 21st century. It revolves around how the increasingly diverse communities that make up pluralistic societies accommodate their cultural and religious differences, and it is not going away after Oct. 19.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email