It is clear that the canard about a tiny number of Muslim women hiding their identities behind niqabs at citizenship ceremonies will be the hot-button issue of this election campaign. That's too bad, because this blatant distraction is fuelled by cynicism, fear-mongering and misinformation.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper himself is selling the biggest untruth about the niqab – that wearing one at a citizenship ceremony is a deliberate attempt to deceive. "When we join the Canadian family we should not hide our identity," he said during the French-language debate in Montreal last week. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe has been equally enthusiastic in his desire ban niqabs – at the citizenship proceedings of the country he wishes to leave.
Let us be perfectly clear: A woman wearing a niqab at a citizenship ceremony is in no way whatsoever hiding her identity. Her identity is known to the officials at the ceremony and has been re-established by her lifting her veil in private just prior to taking the oath. The citizenship judge, too, is satisfied that her identity has been established. Otherwise he or she wouldn't proceed, obviously.
To say differently is cynically misleading. But the BQ and the Conservatives continue to do just that, believing they now have the wedge that will separate them from the other parties.
The Harper government polled Canadians in March and found that 82 per cent of them support "a requirement that people show their face during Canadian citizenship ceremonies." In focus groups, people told the pollsters that, aside from the identification question, "removing their niqab… was the normal thing to do in Canada and therefore the Canadian government was right in issuing this direction about showing their faces."
We must disagree. The day a government imposes "normal" cultural values is the day Canada's basic freedoms go down the drain. We cannot become a country that selectively bans religious practices that have no demonstrably harmful consequences for others.
Canada, Mr. Harper's semantics notwithstanding, is not a "family" governed by a parental authority that lays down a dress code. This country is more free than that. And it faces real issues in this election, such as the economy, that should not be overshadowed by an ugly distraction. Let's leave it behind us and focus on what matters.