Last November, when two daycare workers wearing niqabs were photographed on the streets of Montreal walking with the children in their care, much ranting ensued. The incident took place during the peak (or nadir – you choose) of the debate over Quebec's unlamented Charter of Values. While a number of Canadians argued that people caring for other people's children should not wear conspicuous religious garb – especially a veil that covers their faces – the majority were outraged on the women's behalf. This is Canada, after all. We "believe that freedom of religion and conscience are universal values," Jason Kenney, the Minister of Multiculturalism, had recently reminded Canadians as the Charter of Values debate heated up.
Why then, does Mr. Kenney continue to insist that, while a woman in Canada is free to live and work while wearing a niqab, she can't wear one during a citizenship swearing-in ceremony? Last week, he tweeted his support for this policy after a woman took his government to court on the grounds the ban violates her rights under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It was Mr. Kenney who as immigration minister in 2011 banned niqabs during swearing-in ceremonies – wearing one had previously been perfectly fine. He argued in an interview in 2012 that taking the citizenship oath is "a declaration of your membership in the community and you do that in front of your fellow citizens in public."
His is a complicated position, and there are probably a lot of Canadians in the same bind. They believe in a multicultural country that protects citizens' religious freedoms, but they want observant Muslim women to set those freedoms aside for two minutes while they become citizens. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask. After all, the woman who brought the court case willingly removed her niqab to have her driver's licence photo taken. And citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Why can't the plaintiff respect Canada's simple request with the same openness and spirit of accommodation with which Canada is willing to respect her religious freedoms – especially as she was given the opportunity to stand off to the side during the ceremony, so that fewer people would see her uncovered face? (She turned down the offer and has postponed her swearing-in.)
We think she should have accommodated. But we're not her. A religious freedom is a religious freedom; it's not something you practise only when it's convenient to the broader society – except in the most particular cases. Canadian courts have recognized that it may be important to require Muslim women to remove their niqabs when testifying in criminal court cases, but only if doing otherwise would jeopardize a fair trial. Is the ceremony of the citizenship oath equally critical? Hardly.