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Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, hands out flags during a citizenship ceremony in British Columbia in March 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen won't say whether the government will keep a warning against female genital mutilation in a revamped study guide for the Canadian citizenship exam.

During a House of Commons committee meeting Thursday, Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel grilled Mr. Hussen on a Canadian Press report earlier this year that said the reference to female genital mutilation (FGM) had been removed from a leaked draft of the new citizenship guide. The document, known as the Discover Canada guide, is currently being rewritten by the government.

Globe editorial: Ottawa should stop politicizing the citizenship guide

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The Liberal government has made gender issues a prominent part of its foreign policy, launching what it called "Canada's first feminist international assistance policy" earlier this year. The Conservatives want the government to make it clear in the citizenship guide that FGM is illegal in Canada, so that female newcomers from countries where it is allowed understand their rights.

Mr. Hussen declined to comment on the draft guide or say whether the government will include references to FGM in the new version.

"There hasn't been any removal of anything. There is no citizenship guide that has been written, so your assertion that we removed something from something that hasn't been completed is completely false," Mr. Hussen said in a fiery exchange with Ms. Rempel.

"I commit to continue to consult Canadians on the citizenship guide."

In 2011, the then-Conservative government inserted a warning against "barbaric cultural practices," such as FGM, honour killings, forced marriage and spousal abuse. Former Liberal immigration minister John McCallum – Mr. Hussen's predecessor – was in favour of removing this section from the document.

A draft version of the guide obtained by The Canadian Press in July showed that the Conservative section on "barbaric cultural practices" had been removed. Ms. Rempel asked Mr. Hussen which stakeholders wanted the government to remove the reference to FGM.

"No one has,"Mr. Hussen said.

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The minister's response left Ms. Rempel baffled.

"In the minister's own words, nobody is asking for this change. So I don't understand why they wouldn't just say 'okay' [to the guide's FGM reference]," Ms. Rempel said after the committee meeting.

When Ms. Rempel tried to ask Mr. Hussen for his opinion on FGM, her question was ruled out of order by committee chair Robert Oliphant who said the minister's personal views were irrelevant.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail after the committee meeting, Mr. Hussen made his views clear.

"Of course I'm against FGM. It's a criminal offence. I'm a lawyer. I'm an officer of the court," Mr. Hussen said. "My personal opinion on this is irrelevant."

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women says FGM has been perpetuated against at least 200 million women and girls worldwide. The UN says 98 per cent of women and girls in Somalia aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, followed by Guinea at 97 per cent and Djibouti at 93 per cent.

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Ms. Rempel has sponsored a petition in Parliament calling on the government to include the condemnation of FGM in its final version of the citizenship guide. It has garnered more than 17,000 signatures to date.

The Immigration Department did not respond to a query asking when the government will release its updated version of the citizenship guide.

The debate over so-called "barbaric cultural practices" played a major role in the 2015 federal election when the Conservatives campaigned on a promise to create a tip line for Canadians to call if they suspect a child or woman could be subject to FGM, forced marriage or polygamy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused the Tories of playing the "politics of fear."

"They ran an election on snitch lines against Muslims, they ran an election on Islamophobia and division, and still they play the same games, trying to scare Canadians," Mr. Trudeau said last week during Question Period in the House.

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