Veils ban at citizenship ceremonies

Filed under: Headlines,Immigration News |

New Canadians will now have to show their faces when swearing the oath of citizenship, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Monday in Montreal. Pictured, new Canadians take part in the citizenship oath ceremony in Victoria in June.

Under no exception will new Canadians be able to continue hiding behind a face covering when taking their oath of citizenship, the federal government announced Monday in a move that’s already stirring controversy within and outside the Muslim community.

The new rule, which takes effect immediately, means Muslim women will have to remove their niqabs, burkas and other veils before crossing that final hurdle toward becoming a Canadian citizen.

The move follows complaints from citizenship judges, MPs and others who’ve participated in citizenship ceremonies who say it’s hard to tell whether veiled individuals are actually reciting the oath, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in Montreal where the new measure was unveiled.

“Requiring that all candidates show their faces while reciting the oath allows judges, and everyone present to share in the ceremony, to ensure that all citizenship candidates are, in fact, taking the oath as required by law,” he said.

“This is not simply a practical measure. It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality.”

Discussions are ongoing in Canada about whether women ought to unveil in order to vote or testify in court, though they are currently required to show their faces during airport security checks.

While they have the option to do so in private before a female officer, Kenney suggested no such accommodations would be made at citizenship ceremonies.

“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.

“To segregate one group of Canadians or allow them to hide their faces, to hide their identity from us precisely when they are joining our community is contrary to Canada’s proud commitment to openness and to social cohesion . . . We cannot have two classes of citizenship ceremonies.”

Under the new rules, veiled individuals who present themselves at citizenship ceremonies will get two warnings to remove their face covering, the first from a department staffer when they arrive and the second from the citizenship judge.

Those who refuse will be asked to leave. Individuals will get one chance to sign up for a second citizenship ceremony, but if they again refuse to unveil, they will lose the opportunity to utter the oath and be forced to remain a permanent resident.

Kenney said he was alerted to the practice a few weeks ago by Mississauga-East Cooksville MP Wladyslaw Lizon who attended a ceremony where four fully veiled women took the oath.

He made some inquiries and discovered it was a “widespread problem” that was undermining the “integrity of the oath” which prompted the government to take decisive action.

The announcement certainly came as a surprise to the opposition as well as Muslim leaders on both sides of the debate.

NDP immigration critic Don Davies argued the government appears to have “rushed” into this decision and that Kenney should have raised the issue in committee with members of the opposition and in consultation with stakeholder groups, namely Muslim organizations.

While he agrees citizenship ceremonies are among those proceedings for which establishing one’s identity is critical, he argued the requirement to unveil should be “done in a sensitive manner to respect a person’s dignity.

“Its important to remember that Canada was built on religious tolerance and freedom and inclusion and we must always remember that and include that as a fundamental value,” he said.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said he wasn’t aware of any “epidemic” of burka-clad women appearing in citizenship courts and suggested the government ought to have waited for a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in a similar matter.

Last week, the nation’s top court heard the case of a Muslim sexual assault victim who wanted to testify against her alleged assailants from behind her niqab.

The case pitted the Muslim woman’s right to freedom of religion against the right to a fair trial for her accused because, according to her lawyer, the judge would not be able to determine the veracity of her testimony if he could not see her facial expressions.

Her lawyer David Butt called the new rule for citizenship ceremonies “wrong-headed” and a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“It is not for a man — regardless of his political position — to dictate to a woman the meaning of her religion,” he said, adding it’s unlikely anybody will have the courage to challenge it.

“It’s a vulnerable population. There’s so much at stake. They may not feel they have a choice.”


The new rule is being attacked already in some quarters as a rejection of Islam and Muslims by the Harper government.

“This sends the message that Canada is against Islam,” said Minna Ella, 35, who was born and raised in Canada. She has been wearing the niqab since she was 17.

“I don’t wear it because I’m oppressed. I have never felt oppressed except when I have to defend myself, and my dress, and my religion.

“If I was an immigrant choosing where to move, this would make me think twice about Canada. We love our country just like anyone else. And, we don’t see why this war has been declared up on us.”

Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said there is no requirement in Islam for women to cover their faces, but that some women choose to as an expression of their religiosity.

“There are occasions and times when the face needs to be shown, but we say it should be a matter of security and identification,” she said, noting that could be done before the actual ceremony.

“Once she’s in, I would hope there would be some kind of give and take because some women will be fine with it, and others will be very uncomfortable.”

Meanwhile, Sohail Raza, the past president of the Canadian Muslim Congress, welcomed the federal government plan.

He called the burka and niqab “a cultural phenomenon” brought from nomadic and tribal regions that has no place in Canada or Islam.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m very happy that the Canadian government . . . has taken decisive action. It’s something to be proud of as a Canadian and as a Muslim,” he said.

“We have come here to make Canada our home so anything that is progressive in nature, anything that sinks in with the Canadian values has to be welcome.”

Last spring, France became the first country to ban burkas and niqabs outright. Kenney said Monday that Canada would not go so far as to restrict a person’s clothing in private and in their personal lives but noted showing one’s face is necessary when obtaining federal government services.

While a Conservative private member’s bill to ban the burka at polling stations never made it into law during the last Parliament, Kenney said the government would again support it should it come up in the future.

— With files from Teresa Smit

-Culled from Vancouver Sun

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