A requirement for new Canadians to show their faces while taking the oath of citizenship puts the federal government on one side of a simmering debate over how far the state should go to accommodate minorities.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Monday that Muslim women who wear burkas or niqabs must remove the garments when they are becoming citizens.
The decision comes as the Supreme Court of Canada considers whether a woman should be allowed to testify in court with her face covered. And Quebec is debating a bill to ban face coverings for people receiving some government services, and those providing them. Two federal Conservative attempts to ban veiled voting have stalled before becoming law in recent years.
Speaking to reporters in Montreal, Mr. Kenney said showing one's face while taking the oath is a matter of "deep principle" that strikes at Canadian values of openness and equality.
"The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly," he said.
He said he spoke with citizenship judges who told him they are concerned that they can't tell whether some people are actually reciting the oath during the ceremony because of the garments.
But some experts say the move appears more political than practical.
"It's a hotly contested issue. It might have been appropriate to wait for the Supreme Court decision," said Sharryn Aiken, who teaches law at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "The message seems to be that if you want to live in Canada, don't wear the niqab in any interactions with the state."
The niqab and burka have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as governments and courts try to determine what constitutes reasonable accommodation for the garments.
"I think it's the right decision," said Raminder Gill, a citizenship judge and former Tory MPP for a riding northwest of Toronto. "We have certain rules and regulations in Canadian society … and we want everybody to be together, taking the oath and being part of the Canadian fabric."
Mr. Gill said other officers are present during the swearing-in ceremonies, and they help him monitor groups of about 80 new Canadians to be sure they say the oath. "Are we 100-per-cent accurate? No. But yes, we can notice," he said.
He added that he only sees a couple of people each year who cover their faces at the citizenship ceremonies he presides over.
Mr. Kenney dismissed questions about whether the new rule would interfere with religious freedoms, noting that Muslim women show their faces when they participate in the Haj, a religious pilgrimage to sites in Saudi Arabia.
"That's totally true, but it's totally irrelevant," said Mohammad Fadel, an expert in Islam and law at the University of Toronto. "Clearly going on pilgrimage is a religious ritual with its own rules and taking the oath of citizenship is not."
Prof. Fadel said it's hard to understand why judges need to see peoples' faces, adding he thinks the new rules seem more likely to stigmatize the person wearing the veil than anything else.
Speaking on CHQR, a Calgary-based Conservative radio show Monday morning, Mr. Kenney said he isn't worried about legal objections to the ban.
"I'm sure they'll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge. That's democracy. They're welcome to object," he told host Dave Rutherford.
With files from Dawn Walton in Calgary