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A woman wearing a niqab protests Quebec’s Bill 94, which requires people remove the garment before receiving services.Peter Mccabe/The Canadian Press

New Democrats are toning down the party's defence of the niqab after facing criticism in Quebec on the divisive topic.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has repeatedly condemned the Conservative government's efforts to ban the wearing of the face-covering veils at citizenship ceremonies.

But headlines in French-language media that say NDP is "in favour of the niqab" were not well received by all New Democrats, and provided fodder for the party's opponents in the province.

The niqab is a controversial subject in Quebec, where a promise from the separatist Parti Québécois to ban overt religious symbols among government workers was a major issue in the most recent provincial election.

One of the NDP's best known Quebec MPs, Alexandre Boulerice, gave media interviews this week to explain his "uneasiness" with the niqab.

"It seems to be a symbol of oppression, which is not something that pleases me," Mr. Boulerice told The Globe and Mail on Friday. "I think the niqab is at the junction of the limits of what is accepted by the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] and what Canadian society is ready to accept."

He also questioned the ability of fully veiled bureaucrats to provide services to the public, stating Canada might need a country-wide consultation on religious symbols similar to one in Quebec in 2007-2008. However, he added that the Charter needs to be respected, and accused the Conservative government of "going overboard" on the issue.

The Liberal Party jumped on Mr. Boulerice's comments, arguing that on minority rights, the NDP says "one thing in Quebec, and something else in the rest of Canada."

New Democrat officials said the party's position has not changed: it will continue to support minority rights vigorously and defend the Charter, including the right of women to wear a niqab when swearing the oath of citizenship.

The party also renewed its assault on Prime Minister Stephen Harper for attempting to use the issue of the niqab to win support in Quebec. New Democrats explained that in much of the country, the debate is among three federalist parties, but that in Quebec, the separatist Bloc Québécois, a federal party, is scoring political points by criticizing the niqab.

"Stephen Harper is helping the separatists by giving them a lifeline, by fanning the flames of division on this issue," NDP principal secretary Karl Bélanger said in an interview.

In an attention-grabbing online ad last month, the Bloc asked: "Do you need to veil your face to vote for the NDP?"

"Given that we are defending a largely held view in Quebec and that we are defending the equality of men and women, I do think that this will help fuel an increase in Bloc support in Quebec," Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu told the Canadian Press this week.

Mr. Harper announced during a stop in Victoriaville last month that his government will appeal a Federal Court ruling that would allow niqab-wearing women to take the oath of citizenship with their faces covered.

His Conservative Party is aiming to win the Bloc-held riding of Richmond-Arthabaska, where he was speaking at the time, and a handful of seats to the east in the Quebec City area that are in the hands of the NDP.

Mr. Harper said during Question Period on Wednesday that the niqab is "rooted in a culture that is anti-woman."