The current heated debate about Canadian values and religious freedom centers on Zunera Ishaq, a former school teacher from Pakistan now living in Ontario.
Ishaq is fully eligible for Canadian citizenship, and wants to wear her niqab with pride as she becomes a citizen of Canada.
Her religious convictions led her to postpone attending her citizenship ceremony last year and challenge the Harper government over its policy of not allowing facial coverings while being sworn-in at the citizenship ceremony.
Now that a Ontario judge has ruled that this policy is unlawful, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to appeal the ruling, saying that “it is not how we do things here”.
“I believe, and I think most Canadians believe that it is — it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” he said.
“This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and that is just, I think we find that offensive; that is not acceptable to Canadians and we will proceed with action on that.”
However, critics argue that Harper’s comments run contrary to the government’s much-publicized stance on religious freedom and religious diversity, pointing out that it was this government that started the Office of Religious Freedom, an organization whose sole purpose is to protect the right to the freedom of religion or belief of minorities around the world.
The current furor around the issue stems from the feeling that the government’s official position of backing religious freedom doesn’t extend to the personal decisions of devout Muslim women. As Ishaq clearly pointed out, her decision to wear the niqab is her own, and it is not because of family pressure. Moreover, Ishaq is willing to remove her niqab prior to the citizenship ceremony to allow verification of her identity.
The government would be hard pressed to prove any conflict between Ishaq’s beliefs and the aim of the citizenship ceremony. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Everyone has… freedom of conscience and religion.” Even though these freedoms are subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”, the government would find it next to impossible to prove that its policy of forbidding religious face coverings in citizenship ceremonies is reasonable or justifiable in a free and democratic society.
The lack of a sound legal footing was emphasized by Justice Keith Boswell in his ruling overturning the ban, with Justice Boswell pointing out that the government’s own regulations require the oath be administered with “dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.”
The Prime Minister’s insistence on sticking to his guns on this issue is seen by many as regressive, with the policy not only being unfair and undemocratic, but also putting the government on shaky legal footing while lowering Canada’s moral standing.