Stephen Harper’s veiled threat

Stephen Harper’s veiled threat

A sweeping Supreme Court declaration on the niqab suggests the federal government may be in the wrong

John Geddes

Stephen Harper’s veiled threat

Andrew Vaughan/CP

Anyone who has followed the running skirmishes between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the courts might reasonably assume that the latest niqab controversy follows a familiar storyline. The Conservatives pass a law in a sensitive area, the courts overturn it on Charter of Rights and Freedoms grounds, and the old tension between elected politicians and appointed judges flares up again. But that’s not what happened this time. In fact, the Tories didn’t pass any new law to ban face veils such as the niqab during the swearing of the citizenship oath; they just wrote a guideline to that effect for citizenship judges to follow. When a niqab-wearing Muslim immigrant from Pakistan objected to uncovering her face, a Federal Court judge found—without even having to invoke the Charter’s protection of religious freedom—that the new guideline wasn’t allowed under Ottawa’s existing regulations.

If that sounds like quibbling over administrative rules, the political fallout indicates a lot more is going on here. In announcing his decision to appeal that Federal Court ruling, Harper framed the issue in terms of defending Canadian identity, declaring last month that face veiling is “not the way we do things here.” In the House, he later denounced the niqab, which is worn in Canada by a small minority of Muslim women, as being “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused Harper of trying to “foster prejudice directly toward the Muslim faith.” Despite all the heated political rhetoric, though, some legal experts see no reason to expect this particular case, when the appeal is eventually heard, to amount to a serious test of when the government is justified in limiting the ways people express their faiths.

The judge who ruled against the guideline banning face-covering veils during the reciting of the citizenship oath found that it conflicted with an older regulation, one that requires citizenship judges to allow “the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization” of the oath. University of Toronto law professor Denise Réaume says the vehement reactions of Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who brought in the anti-veiling guideline when he was citizenship minister in 2011, belie the fundamental weakness of their legal position. “There couldn’t be a clearer case of government ministers just whipping up the population when they haven’t got a legal leg to stand on,” Réaume says. If they really want to invite a decisive Charter challenge, she adds, the Conservatives should explicitly rewrite the citizenship-ceremony regulations to assert the symbolic importance of unveiled oath-taking by new Canadians.

Read More: The weak and uninspiring case against the niqab

Based on comments from Harper and, especially, from Kenney, the government seems to think it can justify not allowing the niqab, largely on grounds that Muslim women are not, in fact, required for religious reasons to cover their faces in public. In an interview with Maclean’s, Kenney stressed his own understanding that this isn’t a genuine issue of religious freedom. “I note that a huge number of Muslims have reminded me that the face covering is not a religious obligation,” he said. “This is a cultural tradition of Arab tribes from the pre-medieval period that has been imposed on some women.” But the Supreme Court of Canada, in a landmark 2012 decision, said that sort of historical analysis is irrelevant, if an individual sincerely believes that the niqab is a required form of religious observance.

That decision was handed down in a case involving a woman who wanted to wear a niqab while testifying against two men she claimed had sexually assaulted her. The court had to weigh her right to religious freedom against their right to a fair trial. Writing for the majority in a split decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said trial judges had to decide on a case-by-case basis, assessing in each instance if “the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so.” McLachlin was clear, though, that a wide ban on the niqab, on grounds that religious expression has no place in a “neutral space” like a courtroom, would be going too far. “It is inconsistent with Canadian jurisprudence, courtroom practice, and our tradition of requiring state institutions and actors to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs insofar as possible,” she wrote.

Further Reading: MP Larry Miller apologizes for “stay the hell where you came from” comment on the niqab  

That sweeping declaration from the top court on how governments must allow religious expression suggests Harper and Kenney have a tough case to make. Still, not all experts see them as doomed to lose their appeal case over banning veils during the citizenship oath. University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman says the Federal Court judge who made the ruling might have read too much into the regulation requiring religious freedom during the ceremony. “I think the natural reading of that is people might swear the oath on different religious books,” Newman says. “But I’m not sure that regulation, in the way the judge suggests, has anything to say about the niqab.” Maybe not. Politicians, professors and pundits, though, seem to be talking these days about little else.


2 texts from canadian news on niqab during citizenship oaths: Ndp v. Con

Mulcair: Niqab Debate A Matter For Courts, Not Politicians

Posted: 03/17/2015 6:25 pm EDT  Updated: 03/17/2015 11:59 pm EDT 

MONTREAL – Questions surrounding the wearing of the niqab should be dealt with by the courts and not by politicians, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Tuesday.

Mulcair said he is not against women wearing the full Islamic veil at oath-taking ceremonies or employees displaying it in the federal civil service.

Conflicts over religious clothing are the domain of judges and its not up to politicians to interpret the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.

“Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the charter,” he said. “It’s up to the courts to set parameters and to decide limits.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the government will appeal a recent Federal Court ruling allowing people to take citizenship oaths with their faces covered.

Harper said Canadians are overwhelmingly against people wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.

One of Mulcair’s MPs from Quebec, Alexandre Boulerice, said last week he was uncomfortable with federal bureaucrats wearing niqabs in the workplace.

Mulcair said Tuesday that Boulerice was only expressing a personal opinion and not representing the party’s position.


Niqab debate necessary — but the hysteria surrounding it needs to go

We need to proceed with caution on the niqab debate

By Andrew MacDougall, for CBC News Posted: Mar 20, 2015 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 20, 2015 5:00 AM ET

One of the joys of vacationing after leaving politics is that I don’t have to bring my work phone along, and if I do, I don’t have to check it like an obsessive monkey while I’m away.

And so when I fired up the Twitter machine on the shaky airport Wi-Fi to tune back into the world at the end of my recent holiday in Egypt, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find.

It turns out I didn’t miss much. Well, other than the prime minister talking some frank language about the culture that produced the niqab being “anti-women,” Justin Trudeau in return implying the prime minister is a racist while making dubious comparisons to shameful episodes in Canadian history, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney firing some crooked bullets of his own, and the commentariat spilling volumes of digital ink describing it all.

Isn’t it lovely when we have a nice adult debate about sensitive and challenging issues?

As I was getting caught up on the drama, I was sitting close to a woman who was lifting her niqab to eat some lunch, while her husband sat next to her in shorts and a T-shirt. It was the first time I had seen a veiled woman in the 10 days I spent in Egypt, although I don’t imagine the niqab crowd go to Sharm El-Sheikh to get their sun among the skimpily dressed hordes of Russians, English and Italians. But I digress.

The prime minister’s point, it seems to me, is a valid one. If you were to compare the rate of veiling with the protection and promotion of women’s rights, you’re likely to find an inverse relationship. The woman eating her lunch next to me was waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia, nobody’s champion for female emancipation. Well, no woman’s champion.

Trudeau’s comment about anti-Muslim fear-mongering is also valid, although crying hysterically that Muslims are a target isn’t particularly helpful, especially when it’s not the case. Ah, but the niqab hubbub is just a government proxy for a more insidious anti-Muslim agenda, they’ll say.

PM cited culture — not religion

It should go without saying that the prime minister’s comments don’t necessarily mean that all Muslims are anti-women, or that Islam, as it’s practised in Canada, will lead to a Saudi-style outcome. The prime minister mentioned “culture,” and not “religion,” for a reason, as the practice of covering the face isn’t mandated by the Qur’an.

It’s a cultural choice that some make. Indeed, the young woman behind the court challenge has provided an elegant defence of her choice in the Toronto Star.

But for others it’s a choice that’s foisted upon them, and so we ought to be worried about where on that particular continuum we are, and whether we’re at risk of moral relativism settling in to the detriment of women in our country. All sides should calm down and avoid hysteria so we can talk about it a little bit.

Returning to Egypt, it was fascinating to speak with young Egyptians in Cairo who had been caught up in the past four years of revolutionary turmoil. They were thankful for two things, above all else: that stability had returned to the country, and that the Muslim Brotherhood weren’t going to set women back. For these young Egyptians, the Brotherhood meant an end to dreams of equality. It wasn’t a matter of cultural choice to wear a niqab, it represented servitude.

The niqab makes a lot of Canadians uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons. There are many Larry Millers out there. But then again, why would we feel comfortable? We’ve never had a habit of obscuring our physical appearance in public.

Conservative MP Larry Miller

Conservative MP Larry Miller apologized after saying on a radio show that women who want to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath should “stay the hell where you came from.” (

There might be good reasons for it, and it would be good to hear from more people who wear the niqab, like Zunera Ishaq, so that we might figure out if she’s the exception, or the rule. Then again, those who have the niqab forced upon them will probably not be at liberty to discuss it. We might only ever hear from those who have a choice.

But try to hear we must. Other countries have had a similar debate, with some countries like France going as far as to ban the niqab. The government of Canada is proposing no such thing. The government, the polls show, has support for its stance on the niqab and citizenship.

There are two (difficult) questions for Canada to answer: What cultural practices, if any, are antithetical to our values as a country; and when do these cultural practices impede the government’s ability to do its job and what should be done about it?

Without doubt, the cultural accommodation debate is a tinderbox. We must proceed with caution. But if all sides insist on running around with matches we won’t get to debate, we’ll just go up in flames.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.

CBC radio interview Jason Kenney

Interview – Jason Kenney 

With the death of Sgt. Andrew Doiron and only three weeks remaining before the end of Canada’s Iraq mission, Defence Minister Jason Kenney talks about the future of the fight against ISIS.

link between islamic fundamentalism and full face-veils (as a symbol of islamic fundamentalism) made via minister of defense and minister of multiculturalism

Tory MP on niqab issue: ‘Stay the hell where you came from’

Tory MP on niqab issue: ‘Stay the hell where you came from’

Conservative backbencher Larry Miller has apologized for his “inappropriate” comments about women who wish to wear a niqab during the ceremonial citizenship oath.

OTTAWA—A Conservative backbencher is backing away from suggesting women who refuse to remove their niqab during a ceremonial citizenship oath should “stay the hell where you come from.”

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller issued a retraction Tuesday morning for the comment, made to a local call-in show on Monday.

“If you’re not willing to show your face in the ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly . . . if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, then stay the hell where you came from,” Miller said during the show.

“I think most Canadians feel the same. That’s maybe saying it a little harsh, but it’s the way I feel.”

After the comments were picked up by the left-wing website Press Progress Tuesday, Miller issued a statement saying the way he felt was inappropriate. But neither Miller, nor the Prime Minister’s Office, backed away from their position that residents should be forced to remove their niqab during the citizenship ceremony.

“(Miller) made inappropriate comments that went beyond our clear position, and he has apologized for that,” wrote Carl Valée, a spokesman for the PMO, in an email.

“We believe most Canadians, including new Canadians, would find it offensive that someone would cover their face at the very moment they want to join the Canadian family.”

Miller’s comments came in relation to a question about Zunera Ishaq, the woman who successfully challenged the Conservatives’ niqab ban in federal court. Writing in the Star on Monday, Ishaq said she’s perfectly happy to remove her niqab before the ceremony to identify herself.

“I will not take my niqab off at that same ceremony for the sole reason that someone else doesn’t like it, even if that person happens to be Stephen Harper,” Ishaq wrote.

Defending his government’s position last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” The Conservatives intend to challenge the federal court’s ruling that would allow Ishaq to take the oath while wearing the face covering.

NDP multiculturalism critic Andrew Cash accused the Conservative leadership of promoting “trickle-down racism.”

“The comments are totally reprehensible, and they have absolutely no place in the Canadian conversation,” Cash said Tuesday.

“For a member of Parliament especially to be espousing this kind of crap is just outrageous.”

Cash said the Conservatives have had a recent trend of racially-charged comments, pointing to Conservative MP and former Harper communications director John Williamson’s recent comments about the temporary foreign worker program.

During the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa, Williamson framed the TFW program as paying “brown people” to work while paying “whities” to stay at home on employment insurance.

In a recent speech in Toronto, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the Conservative government of using the politics of fear to sell their legislation to expand spying powers.

Miller refused to be interviewed on Tuesday.

OMER AZIZ Banning the niqab harms an open society. So does wearing it

Omer Aziz is a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, where he is a Fellow at the Information Society Project. He tweets @omeraziz12.

It has become increasingly clear that Stephen Harper will fight the 2015 election campaign by touting anti-niqabism while dropping hints that his opponents are therefore terrorist sympathizers. As far as political strategy goes, the approach is cost-free: An overwhelming majority of people are against the niqab and people are easy to frighten. The Liberals and NDP should be commended for opposing this style of politics, and standing up for liberal principles of choice. The state, after all, has no business in the dressing rooms of the nation.


But while a woman’s right to dress how she wishes should be respected by fellow citizens, recognized by courts, and accommodated where possible – and citizenship ceremonies easily meet the reasonable-accommodation standard – the defence of this right should not be made without necessary caveats, the most important of which is the niqab’s anti-liberal, anti-democratic nature. Defending an illiberal practice in a liberal democracy must be a two-step process where the individual’s decision is protected, but the attitudes underlying the practice are vigorously critiqued. It is the second step that is missing from the debate today.

To begin with the obvious, the niqab has almost nothing to do with Islam. It is a face covering that dates back to the cultural mores of seventh century Arabia, and the majority of Muslim women do not wear it. Al Azhar University in Egypt, the great centre of Sunni learning, banned the niqab in 2009 and its head at the time, the late Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, denounced it as a folk practice. Even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey, known for its soft Islamism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not considered lifting the Turkish niqab ban.

The debate in Canada has proceeded as if this vigorous contest over the status of the niqab and its rejection by most women has not happened. This is the default politics of multiculturalism at work, with white Westerners essentializing all Muslims as the same. We hear often about ‘the Muslim population’ and ‘the Muslim world,’ as if the million Canadian Muslims and the billion-plus Muslims around the world were without internal pluralism, debate and diversity. Call this neo-Orientalism, where outsiders define Muslims as all thinking and acting the same way, which is simply to say not thinking or acting very much.

It is true that some women freely decide to wear the niqab because they see it as a form of modesty; their personal wishes, again, must be respected. But to reduce this debate to individual choice misses the point in several ways. Some women are forced to wear the niqab by family patriarchs, and because one’s outlook on dress and public perceptions is formed at an early age, the veiled teenager can quickly become a niqab-wearing adult.

“What autonomy of choice do you have if your preferences are so obviously conditioned by your social milieu?” asks Zia Haider Rahman in his novel In Light of What We Know. That there may exist even a small minority of women who have been forced to wear the niqab should be enough to cast suspicion on the free-choice argument.

Assuming it is genuine modesty and not an ostentatious display of conservative religiosity that motivates a woman to wear a black veil sequestering her from the rest of society, a cultural practice that demands of one sex to cover up is inherently misogynistic. If anyone should be required to cover their faces, it is the men who torture and kill their daughters and sisters for marrying of their own free will. Let us not mince words here: Women are certainly ‘free’ to wear the niqab, in the same sense as they are ‘free’ to enter the mosque from the side and ‘free’ to stand behind the men while praying. This is a blinkered idea of freedom, but liberalism requires tolerating and legally protecting illiberal attitudes.

The main problem with the niqab, though, is that it diminishes liberal democracy. What separates liberal societies from dictatorships is that the former are open, allow for face-to-face consultation, encourage dissent, and recognize individuals as equals. Liberal societies must allow one citizen to see another citizen’s face when in conversation or contact. When only one party’s face is visible, the informalities of open conversation disappear, body language is eliminated, the natural empathy we humans feel when looking at our fellow human’s face is extinguished. A veil over the face of one citizen permanently alters the terms of the discussion, which is why niqabs have no place in classrooms and other institutions where free discourse is designed to flourish. Imagine a society where all women covered their faces, as some of the more totalitarian Islamists would impose. Call this society what you like, but it would be the farthest thing from liberal democracy.

The enemy of the open society, the late Czech playwright-president Vaclav Havel once wrote, ‘is a person with a fiercely serious countenance and burning eyes.’ Both the politician who seeks to ban what a woman may wear, and the patriarch who seeks to dictate what a woman must wear, are not friends of the open society.

Neither, however, is the niqab.

Larry Miller, Conservative MP, recants inflammatory niqab-ban comment

Larry Miller, Conservative MP, recants inflammatory niqab-ban comment

‘This sentiment is not an aberration among the Conservatives,’ NDP critic says

By Kady O’Malley, CBC News Posted: Mar 17, 2015 11:21 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 17, 2015 2:38 PM ET

Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound MP Larry Miller, seen here with Public Works Minister Diane Finley during a tour in his riding last summer, has apologized for suggesting Muslim women who want to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies should 'stay the hell where [they] came from.'

Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound MP Larry Miller, seen here with Public Works Minister Diane Finley during a tour in his riding last summer, has apologized for suggesting Muslim women who want to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies should ‘stay the hell where [they] came from.’ (Adam Carter/CBC)

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound MP Larry Miller said that he stands by his views that those who wish to be sworn in as citizens should uncover their face.

“However, I apologize for and retract my comments that went beyond this,” he said.

According to a post on the Broadbent Institute-affiliated blog Press Progress, Miller — who was once described by National Post columnist John Ivison as “the voice in [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s ear” — made the comments during an open-line talk show on local radio station CFOS on Monday.

The audio is posted on the Press Progress website:

In response to a caller named Joseph, Miller said he was “baffled” by last month’s Federal Court decision, which overruled the ministerial edict requiring those taking the citizenship oath to expose their faces so they could be seen, as well as heard, while reciting the pledge.

Shortly after the ruling was handed down, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the government intends to file an appeal.

“It just baffles me that lady — you know, challenged us in court and won,” he said.

‘Most Canadians feel the same,’ MP says

“I don’t know what the heck our justice people — it’s more our legal system than it is justice system — but that isn’t right,” he added.

“Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from, and I think most Canadians feel the same.”

A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander noted that Miller has retracted and apologized for his comments.

“These comments do not reflect the position of the government,” Kevin Menard added via email.

In a separate statement, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office agreed that Miller’s “inappropriate comment … went beyond our clear position.”

But Carl Vallee also reiterated the government’s belief that “most Canadians, including new Canadians, would find it offensive that someone would cover their face at the very moment they want to join the Canadian family.”

New Democrat citizenship and immigration critic Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe called Miller’s comments “grotesque”.

“Equally worrisome is the fact that this sentiment is not an aberration among the Conservatives,” she added.

“After weeks of the prime minister and his cabinet stoking Islamophobia, they’ve truly proved that trickle-down racism works.”

Liberal MP Emmanuel Dubourg said Miller’s remarks were “incredibly offensive.”

“As an immigrant, I was shocked and appalled to hear these divisive and disgraceful comments from another MP in Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party,” he told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa.

“Canada needs leadership that recognizes we are strong not in spite of our differences but because of them. That’s meant bringing Canadians together, not [dividing] them against one another.”

Police called after ‘irate’ man visits Miller

Miller’s remarks also raised the ire of at least one of his constituents, according to local media.

Shortly after the program aired, Bayshore Broadcasting journalist Kevin Bernard reported that Miller called the police after “a man in camouflage and wrapped in a foreign flag came into his office, saying he was Muslim,” and expressing concern over the MP’s comments.

“Miller says the man” — who, according to the story, was “Caucasian and… did not seem to have an accent” — “was upset about what the MP said on the CFOS Open Line show on Monday and the incident scared his staff,” Bernard noted.

The man was “quite irate,” according to Bernard, “and Miller says he won’t put up with this from anyone.”

Police located the man later that night, the news outlet revealed.

“The man — who indicated that he had the Palestinian flag with him at the time of the incident — apologized for causing such alarm that police would have to be contacted,” Bernard reported.

“There was no criminal offence committed and as a result no charges.”