Harper wants to ‘examine’ ban on niqab in public service and the ‘duty to accommodate’

Beyond playing identity politics on the issue, there is a need for a more substantive discussion, based upon evidence (including the data on the religious affiliation of public servants as in my background note Religious Minorities in the Public Service) and how the “duty to accommodate” policy would be applied in the case of a request (and how any previous requests – if they exist – were handled).

Any request would not just be handled at the working level but would most likely involve HR officials and more senior officials and would likely emerge into the public domain.

A quick review of TBS’s Duty to accommodate guide for managers shows it largely focuses on accommodation for persons with disabilities, with little guidance with respect to religious accommodation. The Canadian Human Rights Commission and provincial equivalents provide more guidance and examples, but no examples of niqabs or gender-based segregation based upon my quick review (corrections welcome).

And a reminder, the duty to accommodate does not mean agreeing to the specific request or the specific form of accommodation requested:

A re-elected Conservative government would “examine” whether to prohibit public servants from wearing the face-covering garment known as the niqab, leader Stephen Harper said Tuesday.

“That’s a matter we’re going to examine,” Harper told Rosemary Barton during an interview on CBC’s Power & Politics Tuesday. “Quebec, as you know, has legislation on this. We’re looking at that legislation.”

The prime minister was referring to Bill 62, introduced by Quebec’s Liberal government in June, which contains measures to prohibit public servants from wearing niqabs in provincial offices.

Harper’s notion earned swift denunciations.

“Stephen Harper is trying to play politics with sensitive issues. It smacks of political manipulation,” said Paul Dewar, the incumbent NDP candidate in Ottawa Centre.

Catherine McKenna, the Liberal candidate in Ottawa Centre, agreed. “The niqab in the public service is not a serious issue, it’s a diversion tactic.”

Ron Cochrane, co-chairman of the National Joint Council, called it an “example of Harper trying to create a problem where there isn’t one now.”

“If there are people who wear the niqab providing services to Canadians, no one has ever complained about their dress, so why is he making it an issue when it hasn’t been before?”

“This election is too important to be distracted by Mr. Harper’s questionable tactics,” said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. “Unlike this prime minister, we respect the rule of law and our focus is on defending our ability to deliver essential public services to Canadians.”

The niqab issue has become a hot-button election topic in recent days, as the Federal Court of Appeal rejected the government’s application for a stay of a Federal Court decision in favour of a Muslim woman, Zunera Ishaq, who wants to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony.

Source: Harper wants to ‘examine’ ban on niqab in public service | Ottawa Citizen

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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