Harper’s niqab comments ricochet

The Canadian Press
Murray Brewster

OTTAWA—Stephen Harper took the politics of niqabs to a higher level yesterday, suggesting a re-elected Conservative government would consider legislation banning the Muslim face covering for anyone dealing with—or working for—the federal government.
He opened the door earlier in the week with a CBC television interview, saying niqabs could be nixed in the public service—echoing similar comments last week in the French-language leaders’ debate.
But the Conservative leader went further yesterday, lauding Quebec’s Bill 64, which requires those who wear face coverings to remove them if they want to work in the public sector—or do business with government officials.
Although tabled in the National Assembly, the bill has yet to be debated.
Harper called the Quebec Liberal government’s approach measured and pledged that when it came time for federal legislation, he would follow their lead.
“I believe the Quebec government has been handling this controversial issue in a responsible manner and we will do exactly the same thing in Ottawa,” Harper said during a campaign stop in Saskatoon.
As if to hammer home the point, the Conservatives released online attack ads in French yesterday that go after Justin Trudeau’s position on the niqab.
A proposed ban on niqabs in the federal civil service would affect an infinitesimally-small number of bureaucrats—if any at all.
Statistics from 2011 show only 1.8 percent of 257,000 federal employees are Muslim women and only a small subset of them likely is to wear face coverings.
The Conservatives already have tried to require Muslim women to show their faces at citizenship ceremonies, but those rules are being challenged in the courts.
Harper’s comments yesterday make clear he is eyeing additional legislation to require women to unveil every time they want services from the federal government.
Harper insisted his government has been “saying the same thing for several months” on the issue.
While the prime minister may have been consistent in his comments that niqabs are contrary to Canadian values, that doesn’t mean members of his own cabinet are all on the same page about a wider ban.
Asked last spring whether the Conservatives would consider implementing measures similar to those in Quebec, Treasury Board president Tony Clement said the federal opposition to niqabs was limited to citizenship ceremonies.
“That is what the prime minister said and that is a point of view that one can hold,” Clement said back on March 11.
“That doesn’t mean that you can impose that view in the workplace or in the private sphere,” he noted.
“The one place where I think we have a right and an obligation to stress Canadian values is in the act of obtaining one’s citizenship”
Both Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair condemned the latest proposal as an attempt to distract voters from serious questions about Conservative management of the economy.
Mulcair said what Harper was doing as “bizarre” and “dangerous,” and part of a broader political strategy aimed at getting the Conservatives re-elected by accentuating differences rather than bringing people together.
“Stephen Harper is reminding us every time he does this why he doesn’t deserve to be prime minister,” Mulcair said in Enoch, Alta. as he highlighted his party’s $4.8-billion plan to improve aboriginal education
Trudeau, in London, Ont., said Harper’s divide-and-conquer approach “is unworthy of the office he holds and he needs to stop.”
“No election win is worth pitting Canadians against Canadians,” he stressed.