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Lorne Waldman

The day after the federal election, Toronto refugee lawyer Lorne Waldman received an e-mail from a woman in Fort McMurray, denouncing him in great detail.

It was about the niqab case.

"You have the gaul [sic] to tell me on national television that I have to live in 'harmony' with individuals who have lived here for five years but who will only become citizens on their own terms thereby repudiating the rights and freedoms and values our Canadian forces have died for in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Syria?"

For Mr. Waldman, who unexpectedly found himself and his clients at the centre of the election, the e-mail itself was a tipping point: Even though the niqab controversy ended with the victory of Justin Trudeau, who opposed the ban, an undercurrent of anti-Muslim feeling remains, and needs to be confronted.

"I see the seeds of a huge problem that we in Canada have been able to avoid for many years – some of the worst aspects of the anti-immigrant sentiment that's existed in Europe," he said in an interview. "And we avoided it for a long time because we had responsible leaders who didn't try to stir the pot. All we need is another election where someone else chooses to use these types of wedge issues."

If it was a very good election for the Liberals, it was a strangely eventful one for Mr. Waldman, even by his own busy standards. He represented Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant who successfully fought a Conservative ban on wearing a niqab during the citizenship oath. The niqab became a major election issue. He also represented a Canadian-born convicted terrorist facing the loss of his citizenship; the government's fight against terrorism was another big election issue. And he was a spokesman for a national refugee lawyers' group on the Syrian refugee crisis – a third key issue – urging that the government speed up the process by emphasizing the reunification of families.

"I've never had an experience like this," said the 63-year-old father of three, who runs an 11-lawyer firm that includes his daughter. "I've done lots of high-profile cases but my God …"

The end of the election may have brought him a respite. Getting tough on refugee claimants perceived to be taking advantage of Canada's laws and social supports was, like crime and terrorism, a major focus for the Conservatives. Last year, Mr. Waldman won a case against the government's cuts to refugee health care; a Federal Court judge called them "cruel and unusual treatment." Shortly after the election, the government's appeal was adjourned. He doesn't expect the Liberal government to fight the Federal Court ruling.

"He's an excellent strategic thinker," University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Bond said in an interview. "I think that's one reason he's been involved in so many important cases. He's able to see where a case has the potential to make a difference in Canadian society."

It wasn't just the e-mail from Fort McMurray that disturbed Mr. Waldman. Many of his friends, acquaintances and fellow lawyers also opposed his stand on the niqab. Even his sister and mentor, Ontario Family Court Judge Geraldine Waldman, who died of brain cancer on the same day he received the e-mail, disagreed with his stand.

"The last real conversation I had with her about anything political was about the niqab. She was a diehard feminist. She opened the first all-female law practice in Ontario in the seventies with Harriet Sachs, Lynn King and Mary Cornish. She couldn't get around the niqab."

Standing up for the niqab surprised even him.

"It was a bit strange, to be honest, to defend the right of a woman to wear the niqab. It's not one of the things to have high on my list of rights that I would defend. But it had nothing to do with the niqab. It was defending the right of Canadians to express themselves as they saw fit. It was also opposing an abuse of power by the minister who clearly was acting illegally when he issued this policy statement." (Both the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal pointed to the wording of the Citizenship Act, which says only cabinet can make changes to the citizenship ceremony. Mr. Kenney had simply issued a directive banning the niqab.)

Mr. Waldman comes from a refugee background – two grandparents came to Canada to escape Russian pogroms in the early 1900s. He says he became a refugee lawyer in response to the Jewish experience with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which he called "my defining thing."

"We have pictures at home of all my mother's uncles and aunts. On my mother's side there were at least 12 or 13 uncles and aunts. They all had kids and the kids were married, and so we're talking about probably 80 or 90 people – three survived."

And a grandfather fled the Cossacks. The story Mr. Waldman was told as a child – he doesn't know if it's true – is that his grandfather was coming home from work one day in Russian-occupied Poland when the local rabbi stopped him, gave him some money and told him not to go home, all the young men were being taken into the army by the Cossacks. "He didn't even say goodbye to his wife who had one young child and was, unbeknownst to him, pregnant. He came over in 1912 and tried to bring my grandmother over but couldn't before the war. She arrived in 1920." That grandfather was fired from a job in Canada because he wouldn't work on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday.

And Mr. Waldman said he grew up in the 1950s on stories of the St. Louis – a ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Canada in 1939 and sent back to Germany. The refugees were never heard from again.

"That was so much a part of my consciousness as I grew up. I don't think it's a coincidence I became a refugee lawyer."

Now, he says, he, Ms. Ishaq and others intend to give talks, probably beginning in some Ontario law schools, in which they discuss the meaning of Canada and the acceptance of difference.

"If I learned one thing from this experience, it's that I never realized how deep-seated these feelings are," he said of anti-Muslim sentiment. "We ignore this at our peril if we don't deal with this now."

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