A Mississauga woman has taken the federal government to court over a policy that forbids wearing the face-covering veil while taking the oath of citizenship, arguing the ban breaches her Charter rights and fails to accommodate her religious beliefs and dress code.
Banning the niqab from citizenship ceremonies is the result of former immigration minister Jason Kenney imposing his own ideology of “Canadian values” on the process, Zunera Ishaq’s lawyer, Naseem Mithoowani, told federal court Justice Keith Boswell at a hearing in Toronto on Thursday.
“The true motivation of the policy is to compel Muslim women to abandon, albeit briefly, their religious adherence,” Mithoowani said.
“The failure to remove the veil is at the heart of this policy, more than being seen taking the oath . . . This is about Kenney deciding that niqab does not fit into the mode of Canadian citizens.”
It’s the first such challenge against the niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies; if successful, it could strike down the policy.
In December 2011, Kenney brought in the ban in an operational manual — rather than new legislation — in a series of measurements meant to strengthen the integrity of Canadian citizenship that also included raising the pass mark for the citizenship test and stricter residency and language requirements.
“(The) cultural tradition. . . reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada,” Kenney, now Canada’s employment minister, said then. “We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society, and certainly when they’re taking the citizenship oath, that’s the right place to start.”
Ishaq, who was not in court, started wearing the niqab at 15 and said it has become part of her identity. In 2008, she was sponsored to Canada from Pakistan by her husband.
She put her citizenship ceremony on hold in January as a result of the ban.
Ishaq said she had no issue with removing her niqab in a private setting if it is “necessary” for security or identification purposes, but felt it’s different “being seen” taking the citizenship oath in a room full of others.
Government lawyer Negar Hashemi said the case is about finding the “right balance” between respecting differences and maintaining Canadian core democratic values.
The niqab ban, she said, is part of a larger scheme to ensure everyone vows loyalty to Canada. Other non-veil-wearing candidates caught not doing so, such as elderly people with language difficulties, can also have their citizenship certificates withheld. “There is no hidden agenda in this case,” she said.
Hashemi said Ishaq did not seek accommodation prior to her scheduled citizenship ceremony and declined the offer to take her oath at the front or the back of the citizenship court after the legal action was initiated.
She noted that the applicant unveiled herself to have her driver’s licence photo taken, and the brief unveiling at a citizenship ceremony would be no different.
“She had a choice of becoming a citizen or adhering to her religion,” said Hashemi. “Becoming a citizen is a privilege, not a right.”
Lorne Waldman, a co-counsel for Ishaq, said the Citizenship Act does not stipulate that a candidate must be seen or heard taking the oath — something witnesses for the immigration department agreed is hard to enforce and ensure.
“This policy was dictated by the immigration minister (Kenney) that there had to be a change, and there’s no willingness to provide any accommodation,” said Waldman, adding that officials confirmed there are fewer than 100 cases a year across Canada where someone wears a niqab to the ceremony.
Everyone attending a citizenship ceremony must show their face and be identified by immigration officials, though women wearing a niqab can ask to go to a private space and unveil in front of a female officer.
While in the past these women were allowed to take the oath with face covered, Waldman said, they now must remove the scarves in public during the two minutes of oath-taking before a citizenship judge.
“The applicant has the right to be accommodated. It’s her right to take the oath without taking off the niqab,” said Waldman.
Justice Boswell reserved his decision.