by Ray Grigg
Canada is in a political fuss about a little piece of cloth draped across the face of a Muslim woman who insists on wearing a niqab during her swearing of allegiance ceremony to become a citizen of this country. The Harper government has tried to deny her citizenship by launching successive court challenges — it keeps losing, most recently at the Federal Court of Appeal. The courts have invariably ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives a woman the option to wear a niqab even during such a solemn occasion — she reveals her face privately before the ceremony so she is properly identified.
The specific “she” is Zunera Ishaq, 29, the mother of four boys and a 2008 immigrant from Pakistan to Ontario who is working her way toward teacher certification. She made the decision to wear the niqab when she was 15 years old, against the advice of her siblings, mother and father — in an interview on CBC’s The Current (Oct. 11/15), she describes her father as a liberal Muslim science professor. Even her husband, she says, has tried to dissuade her from wearing a niqab. It is, for her, entirely a personal choice.
Andrew Coyne, a political columnist for The National Post (Oct. 1/15), explored this issue with illuminating insight. The number of women who have been denied citizenship since 2011 for refusing to remove their niqab has been exactly two. This is not a national crisis. “Absent some identifiable harm,” writes Coyne, “there is no basis in Canadian law to ban the niqab.” As for these women, adds Coyne, “Far from weak and submissive, they give every sign of being obstreperously independent, rock-ribbed individualists willing to assert their rights even in the face of a hostile majority. …In their ornery unwillingness to bend to others’ sensitivities, in their insistence on going their own way on a matter of principle, those women are in the finest Canadian tradition of hell-raising.” In short, they are the kind of strong and resolute people we want in this country.
The only reason the niqab became a nationally divisive issue is because the Harper government made it one, said NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who called it “a weapon of mass distraction”. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says his party continues to support minority rights.
Ishaq eloquently expressed her defiance and defence outside the Federal Court of Appeal building where the government lost its recent case. She expressed disappointment with the attention the government was giving her case, “when there is so much more that merits the attention of Canadians at this time.” She noted, “I’m also disappointed that Mr. Harper continually twists the facts of my case for his gain. I wish to confirm that I will be identified without my veil for the purposes of the ceremony.” On the issue of principle she added, “This has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with my right — and the right of all Canadians — to think, believe and dress without government interference.”
True to form, the Harper government says it will seek leave to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada — which it will probably lose. Meanwhile, Zunera Ishaq has identified herself, pledged a tearful oath of allegiance, and is now a Canadian citizen — in time for the federal election.
But the Ishaq niqab incident fits a pattern, part of the intolerance that has been building in Canada during the last decade. Don’t trust foreigners, refugees, minorities, scientists, civil servants, charity groups or environmentalists. Any of them could be engaged in nefarious acts undermining a good and righteous government. It’s part of the erosion of co-operation and trust that is fracturing and polarizing this country.
The resulting fear is spreading. We now worry obsessively about the economy, jobs, corporations, trade agreements, retirement funds, Chinese investments, the high cost of homes, the very rich, the very poor, the homeless, food banks, medical marijuana, safe injection sites for drug addicts, plus the cost of education, daycare, pharmaceuticals and even taxes — what we ironically pay to alleviate these worries. Environmental regulations have been so relaxed or neglected that we also worry about wild salmon, orcas, mountain cariboo, oil spills, clean water, polluting mines, carbon dioxide emissions, extreme weather, melting glaciers, and rivers that are either drying up or flooding.
The sense conveyed is of a country fragmenting into suspicious individuals and conflicting factions — of a Canada tearing itself apart. The prime minister won’t talk to the provincial premiers, they then can’t talk to him, so national policies are not implemented. Confidence has been so eroded that we can’t trust the health care system, pension plans, fair voting, senators, the PMO, the Privy Council Office, or even the integrity of Parliament itself. Omnibus bills, premature closure on debates and obfuscation preclude traditional democratic processes. Questions are evaded rather than answered.
Truth, it seems, has become secondary to blatant political ideology and expedience. Environmental assessment reviews are rendered invalid by narrow frames of reference, undue constraints on testimony, conflicts of interest, collusion, and conspicuous prejudice. The mail is no longer being reliably delivered. Even casting a ballot in a national election has become inexplicably difficult. Lose transparency and the result is rampant suspicion.
In 1919, as the 20th century was shifting into its next chaotic phase of depression and wars, the Irish poet William Butler Years wrote so powerfully in The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”.
This is Canada these days. It’s a mess. And the niqab fuss is a symbol of why.