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Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa last month. Ishaq refused to take part in a citizenship ceremony because she would have to show her face while reciting the oath of citizenship. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa last month. Ishaq refused to take part in a citizenship ceremony because she would have to show her face while reciting the oath of citizenship. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Liberal government drops Supreme Court of Canada niqab appeal Add to ...

The Liberal government has ended Ottawa’s four-year fight against the wearing of the face veil during the citizenship oath, withdrawing a request to the Supreme Court to hear an appeal on the issue.

Coming three days after the Paris attacks by Muslim terrorists that killed at least 129 people, the decision struck the woman at the centre of the case as especially kind. Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant who lives in Mississauga, Ont., had defeated the previous Conservative government at two levels of court, and found herself in the midst of a heated election issue.

Liberals drop Supreme Court niqab appeal (CP Video)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the campaign that the niqab issue was needlessly dividing Canadians. The Conservatives had promised to create a telephone line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices,” such as forced marriage, and to consider adopting a ban on the wearing of the niqab while giving or receiving federal services.

“This is an act of kindness in favour of minorities,” Ms. Ishaq, 29, said in an interview of the Liberals’ decision to end the niqab fight. “It means they are showing their respect and honour towards the minorities. In the countries where the government shows respect for kind behaviour toward minorities, I believe the public does the same.”

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould phoned her personally to tell her, she said. “She was talking to me so nicely, so supportive and strong in her talk. I feel very honoured that she called me and gave me her personal time.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Citizenship and Immigration Minister John McCallum said in a statement that “Canada’s diversity is among its greatest strengths, and today we have ensured that successful citizenship candidates continue to be included in the Canadian family. We are a strong and united country because of, not in spite of, our differences.”

The previous government’s fight against the niqab began in 2011, when Jason Kenney was immigration minister, after a Conservative MP from Mississauga told him about a citizenship ceremony in which four women were veiled. Mr. Kenney issued a ministerial directive that such women had to show their faces while saying the oath. (Women have to uncover their faces in private, in front of a female official, for identification purposes at the start of the ceremony. That requirement was not at issue in Ms. Ishaq’s case.)

Mr. Kenney could not be reached for comment on Monday. During the campaign, he said the practice of face covering “reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.”

The Federal Court said that, under the Citizenship Act, only cabinet could change the rules for the ceremony. It also said the act requires respect for religious faith. The Federal Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, and rejected Ottawa’s request to suspend the ruling while it appealed. Ms. Ishaq was then able to obtain her citizenship while wearing the niqab.

Ms. Ishaq, who is studying to be certified as a school teacher in Ontario, could one day find herself at the centre of another battle over the face veil. She said she feels confident she will be able to wear the niqab while teaching.

She condemned the terrorist attacks. “I don’t feel these are people who have any heart in them. They don’t have any feeling,” she said of the Paris terrorists. She added that she wears the niqab as a personal choice, which she believes is part of her faith.

The Conservative government never filed its arguments with the Supreme Court in connection with the appeal, and the case would have lapsed on Nov. 21 if the Liberals had not acted.

“By actually, formally withdrawing it, they’re sending a signal that they don’t agree with the position taken by the former government,” said Lorne Waldman, a Toronto lawyer who represented Ms. Ishaq. “Especially in light of what happened in Paris, the government is sending out a clear message encouraging tolerance and acceptance of difference.”

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