By PATRICK HUNTER
Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.
“This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal.”
The above quote, taken from a CBC news report, is the Prime Minister’s response to the Federal Court’s ruling on a case that challenges the necessity of a Muslim woman, Zunera Ishaq, to remove her niqab, a face-covering observed by some Muslims, while in public. In this case, the woman was challenging a regulation that the Harper government has imposed that everyone who is taking the citizenship oath must be visibly seen as reciting the oath. The Prime Minister has indicated that his government will appeal the decision which essentially finds that this requirement is unnecessary.
I had, and have, a problem with that requirement – I think it’s childish and unnecessary. But, what has got me ticked off is the Prime Minister’s reference as this being “offensive”.
According to the court documents, the woman was prepared to remove her veil before female officials to confirm her identity. However, to do so within a general public gathering would violate her religious beliefs and practices.
It is my belief that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Human Rights Act and the Multiculturalism – all these, and probably more – combine to protect the religious freedom of individuals. Note that I say “individuals”. Unless there is a stipulation that these Acts are limited to citizens, these Acts, to the best of my knowledge, only mention “individuals”, not citizens.
I would, without any stretch of the language, regard Harper’s “offensive” description of Ishaq’s refusal to remove her veil in a public place as not only offensive by itself, but a reflection of his, and his government’s, lack of sensitivity to one’s religious beliefs.
Another strange counterpart to the Prime Minister’s comments was that made by his minister of citizenship and immigration, Chris Alexander. Apparently Alexander has made a connection between wearing the niqab and violence against women.
Now, this is the same government, and prime minister, which has insisted that there is no need for an inquiry into missing and killed indigenous women.
Let me insert here that I am a Canadian. I was born in Jamaica, a former British colony, and when I took the oath of citizenship to become a Canadian, I did so willingly because of a commitment I was making to Canada. This I did in spite of swearing allegiance to a non-resident head of state who represented a history of enslavement and other atrocities against people of my ancestry – a symbol for which I laud the late Charlie Roach and others for their courage to contest.
To suggest that those who have undertaken to take the oath of citizenship to Canada is less committed to Canada than those who were born here, and that they have to be seen as taking that oath or they risk being denied citizenship seems trite. Unless that has changed since my time, they also have to sign a document attesting to that commitment. Why is that not enough? After all, you just don’t get up one morning and say you’re off to get your citizenship. There is a process of application and background checks, citizenship classes and other formalities that one has to go through to become eligible.
Let us not forget that the Harper government recently tried to introduce – and for all I know it is being practiced – a policy of picking and choosing what members of what religious sects would be allowed into Canada.
This attitude plus the recent introduction of changes to give greater powers to the security establishment without corresponding oversight provisions lends a “slippery-slope” sense to the targeting of Muslims. One would think that the experience of the internment of Japanese Canadians would give any prime minister pause when introducing legislations and policies that have the tendency to affect the freedoms and rights of its citizens based on heritage, religion and ethnicity.
Speculation can be a dangerous thing. One of the reasons for columns in newspapers is that they offer an analysis, based on the writer’s observations, which may not be offered in fact-based news report. What follows is speculation.
There were two high-profile resignations from Harper’s cabinet – former finance minister, Jim Flaherty (who subsequently passed away) and John Baird, the foreign minister. This not to mention the many crises of confidence, including the Senate mess that this government has faced. One has to wonder why. Can these be indicators of the foul smell that is emanating from Ottawa? Two women have left the party – Helena Guergis and now Eve Adams – under a cloud. Is there something else here?
There are directions here that Canada has taken, both internally and externally, that are questionable. There are focuses with which, as a Canadian, I am uncomfortable. So when the Prime Minister uses the all-encompassing term, “most Canadians believe”, as in the niqab case, that it is “offensive”, I want to distance myself from that grouping.
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