The niqab election: Commentary by Wherry and Hébert, past controversies

Aaron Wherry has the rights argument nailed down:

At the outset, it should be understood that the niqab debate, or at least this particular niqab debate, is not about the niqab. Whether you like or agree with the niqab is irrelevant. How you would feel about your daughter wearing the niqab is besides the point. You are entitled to your opinion and, given the fraught politics and cultural curiosity that surround the garment, there is a discussion worth having about the niqab, preferably including the voices of the women who wear it. But for the purposes of whether or not the niqab should be banned during the swearing of the citizenship oath by new Canadian citizens your opinion is of no applicability. Proponents of a ban might want to note that, according to public opinion surveys, a large majority of Canadians do indeed oppose the wearing of the niqab during the oath, but this is irrelevant unless you believe that the rights of individuals should be determined by majority rule, that the extent of minority rights are at the whim of the majority.

One’s rights are what is at issue here. And on that note it is fun to note that on Thursday morning, about nine hours before Stephen Harper made his declaration about a women’s sartorial freedom, the Conservatives announced that, if they continue to govern long enough to do so, they will have the federal government purchase John Diefenbaker’s childhood home and declare it a national historic site. Among the accomplishments the Conservatives recognized in explaining the reason for such an honour was Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, which acknowledged, among other rights, the freedom of religion. “It will give to Canadians the realization that wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour,” Diefenbaker said in 1960, “the Parliament of Canada will be jealous of his rights and will not infringe upon those rights.”

Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights was ultimately overtaken by Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and it is those Charter rights that are relevant (even if a Federal Court judge actually overturned the government’s policy on the niqab because he found it contradicted the Citizenship Act). As Zunera Ishaq‘s lawyers argue in their factum for the Federal Court of Appeal, “The impugned Policy forces the Respondent into an impossible choice: violate a sincerely held religious belief in a significant and material manner, or give up obtaining the Canadian citizenship that she is otherwise entitled to. And it forces this choice on her for no good reason.”

There are no practical justifications for the ban. Confirming an individual’s identity can be done privately before the oath ceremony. Confirming that an individual has said the oath—the practical consideration that Jason Kenney first claimed when he introduced his ban—can be done by having an official stand within earshot.

Jason Kenney has asserted that, based on his consultations, the wearing of a niqab is not properly grounded in religious theology. But we should surely not wish for a country in which ministers of the crown are the arbiters of what constitutes a proper expression of faith. The Supreme Court has set out parameters for legally recognized religious belief (in Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselem and R. v. N.S), and if the case of the niqab ban ever has to be adjudicated on Charter grounds the sincerity of Ishaq’s belief could be tested, but I might suggest that a decent and confident country should give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant unless the welfare of others or the country is somehow threatened.

In Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, the Supreme Court upheld a law that was being challenged on the grounds of religious freedom, but in that case the Court found a “pressing and substantial” goal—specifically, minimizing the potential for identity theft associated with driver’s licences. There is no such goal here. There is only symbolism.

Source: The niqab election – Macleans.ca

A timely reminder of Sikhs wearing turbans in the RCMP. Those who forget history …

The rhetoric over the niqab in the federal election campaign is proving reminiscent of another furor, more than 20 years ago, around the turban and its compatibility with Canadian values and the country’s dearest institutions.

What was allegedly at stake in that debate in the 1990s was the very fabric of the nation, and the sanctity and perhaps survival of an important historic symbol of the country — the Stetson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Baltej Singh Dhillon, a young practising Sikh, wanted to become a Mountie. But his application to the force led to a kind of turban turmoil and an eventual intervention in Parliament by the Progressive Conservative government of the day.

The debate was featured on newscasts and dominated the public conversation. Political parties took positions on it, including the Reform Party, which deemed allowing the right to wear a turban unnecessary, and went so far as to pass a resolution at its 1989 convention banning such religious attire for the RCMP. At the time, Stephen Harper was a defeated Reform candidate and the party’s policy chief.

Dhillon is now a staff sergeant in the RCMP. The force refused to allow him to speak to CBC News about the turban debate. But in a video story produced by Telus Optik in B.C. and posted online, Dhillon recalled the tone of the debate.

“It was vicious. It was angry. It was emotional. It had all the elements of racism in there. It was a disappointment is what it was,” he said in the video.

“The fear was that we would lose the symbols that defined Canadians and defined our culture and defined who we were and our branding with the rest of the world.”

“And that was the greatest irony: That on one hand, we need to protect our symbols, and in the same breath, we need you to not protect your faith or your religion or your roots.”

Source: Niqab debate recalls RCMP turban furor of the ’90s – Politics – CBC News

Lastly, Chantal Hébert on some of the debates that diverse societies will continue to have and the struggle for balance.

While her conclusion is right, the question is how to have such a discussion in an open and respectful fashion, not used as wedge politics but the Conservatives and Bloc:

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.

Source: Niqab debate leading to wider discussion on religious, cultural accommodation: Hébert | Toronto Star

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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