OTTAWA — The NDP is opposed to the wearing of the niqab, Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice told a French-language television program Thursday, contradicting a position party leader Thomas Mulcair had articulated as recently as two weeks ago in English.
Boulerice, the party’s Quebec lieutenant, told TVA his party is “totally uncomfortable” with the idea of female public service employees wearing a niqab, and in society generally.
He also called for the establishment of a national commission on reasonable accommodation, as Quebec has done with the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
“The niqab is a type of barrier that is created between women and the rest of society. It is a wall. It is something that shocks us and with which we are totally uncomfortable,” Boulerice said.
“We would rather there are none,” he added.
“It is not a practice that we like, the niqab, nor one we agree with. We live in a society where usually we can see people’s eyes, face, expression.”
Two weeks ago, Mulcair told reporters in Ottawa that he supports a woman's right to veil herself during a citizenship ceremony.
“It’s a question of rights and freedoms,” Mulcair said on Feb. 25. “The government’s appealing [the court decision], but as far as we’re concerned, the Federal Court got it right.”
In a Feb. 6 decision, Justice Keith Boswell declared “unlawful” a 2011 Conservative policy that forced individuals wearing "full or partial face covering" to uncover themselves in order to swear a citizenship oath.
The policy interfered “with a citizenship judge’s duty to allow candidates for citizenship the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation of the oath,” the judge said.
Mulcair said that the federal government was within its rights to appeal the court case but that he supported the judge's ruling. The NDP leader added that the Conservatives were appealing the decision solely to score political points in Quebec by vilifying Islam.
"I have been doing federal politics for years, and for years I have seen that Muslims are often the scapegoats in political debates. And that, I find it heartbreaking,” he said.
After the prime minister said this week that the niqab was part of an “anti-woman” culture, Mulcair responded by saying a Canadian leader should bring people together, rather than pit them against each other.
HuffPost Canada has contacted Mulcair for comment on Boulerice's interview. A caucus spokesperson told the Canadian Press on Friday that Boulerice gave his personal opinion in the interview, and it does not represent the NDP's position.
Two other federal NDP MPs — Winnipeg's Pat Martin and Ottawa's Paul Dewar — said Friday they disagreed with Boulerice's comments about public service employees.
"I don't care if people wear a paper bag on their head when they go to work,'' Martin said. "It's none of our business.''
Mulcair's statements to date have been in line with those of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who for several weeks has charged that the Conservatives are trying to play wedge politics on the backs of the Muslim community.
“The prime minister has chosen to use politics of division, of attack and of fear,” Trudeau said in French on Feb. 17 after the government said it planned to appeal the court’s decision.
"The Canadian family is based on the protection of minorities and the respect of different expressions or identities."
On Thursday, Boulerice told Quebec TV that the NDP disagrees with the Liberal party policy and would prefer no one wear a niqab.
Boulerice posted his interview on YouTube, and the Twitter account of the Quebec wing of the federal NDP posted the video as well, writing that Boulerice is “explaining the position of the NDP."
— NPD Québec (@NPDQuebec) March 12, 2015
During the interview, Boulerice explained Mulcair’s original support for the court decision by saying that what the NDP supported was the Federal Court ruling that women must unveil their faces to confirm their identity. “After that the person can wear the clothing they want,” he said.
However, the Federal Court did not pronounce itself on the issue of uncovering one’s face for identity or security reasons because it wasn’t being challenged.
Just to make sure the audience understood his party’s position, Boulerice again stressed that women should not wear the niqab anywhere.
“I would prefer that in society, whether it is in the delivery of public services or in society, that people have their face uncovered,” he said.
Tories Should Go Further To Ban Niqab: Boulerice
Boulerice then took a stab at the Conservatives, who, polls suggest, are gaining strength in the Quebec City area. He said the federal government was being disingenuous in suggesting that the niqab shouldn’t be worn in during a citizenship ceremony but was totally fine in the public service, as Treasury Board President Tony Clement suggested this week.
“Let’s be honest. It’s also a little hypocritical to say that it is absolutely necessary for this woman to have her face uncovered during the ceremony but that, after it is over, she will go back home and do whatever she wants,” Boulerice said.
“If we consider that completely covering your face is problematic, it goes above and beyond the citizenship ceremony. We have to be a little bit honest, and after that it is more questions of integration and questions of culture.”
Clement told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government has to treat people equally in the federal public service. “If an individual can do the job for Canadians, that is the criteria,” he said.
Gaining Canadian citizenship, however, is another issue, Clement said.
“It is important during the citizenship ceremony that there are expressions of Canadian values, which include equality of women and men,” he said, in French.
“That doesn’t mean that you can impose that view in the workplace or in the private sphere,” he went on in English. “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. And that, I think, is consistent. That is consistent with how the public feels. It’s consistent with a right reading of the law, and it’s consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
The court decision overturning the niqab ban did not rule on whether the policy breached Charter rights.
In recent weeks, the NDP has found itself under attack from both the Bloc Québécois and the upstart Forces et Démocratie, which support the Conservative government's position on the niqab.
Forces et Démocratie Leader Jean-François Fortin said in a statement that allowing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies would show “we have clearly surpassed the notion of inclusion.”
The Bloc Québécois attacked Mulcair's support for the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, suggesting in a Facebook post: "Do you have to hide your face to vote NDP?"
Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu said Boulerice is struggling to reconcile his own rejection of the niqab with the federal NDP’s stance.
"[This] sums up well all the unease that federalist MPs from Quebec have in Ottawa," the Bloc leader said.
With files from Ryan Maloney and the Canadian Press