OTTAWA — The Conservatives said Wednesday they want the Supreme Court of Canada to consider the issue of whether face coverings can be banned from citizenship ceremonies.
This comes in the wake of a Federal Court of Appeal decision that tried to quickly quash that ban so that at least one woman could get the right to vote next month.
But whether Zunera Ishaq will be able to vote on Oct. 19, as the appeal court justices hoped, remained unclear as the government did not say whether it also intends to seek a stay of Tuesday's decision.
"At that one very public moment of a public declaration of one's loyalty to one's fellow citizens and country, one should do so openly, proudly, publicly without one's face hidden," Conservative Jason Kenney told reporters in Calgary Wednesday.
"The vast majority of Canadians agree with us and that is why we will be appealing this ruling."
Ishaq, a devout, 29-year-old Muslim woman, had refused to take part in a citizenship ceremony because she would have to show her face, thanks to a rule change implemented by Kenney in 2011 when he was immigration minister.
She challenged the rule in Federal Court and won. The ruling said the policy violated the Citizenship Act, which says candidates for citizenship must be allowed he greatest possible religious freedom when they take the oath.
The government appealed but lost. The three-judge appeal panel ruled from the bench, saying they wanted to proceed quickly so that Ishaq could become a citizen in time to vote.
In order for her to do that, the Citizenship and Immigration Department must formally invite her to a ceremony. Several are scheduled in Ontario between now and Oct. 19 and one of her lawyers said Wednesday there is no reason she couldn't be added to the list.
The department did not immediately answer questions about whether it would do that, or if the government would seek a stay of the judgment pending the Supreme Court's decision on whether to hear the case.
"In my view, they either have to give her her citizenship or seek a stay," said Lorne Waldman, one of Ishaq's lawyers. "We're waiting to see what they are planning to do."
People seeking to appeal a decision to the Supreme Court have 60 days from the date of the decision to file the required paperwork. In this case, the government has to act by mid-November.
It could take the Supreme Court up to three months to decide whether to hear the case and if it goes to trial, the decision could take months.
A Conservative government wouldn't take any chances, said Denis Lebel, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant.
If re-elected, the Conservatives will re-introduce and adopt legislation banning face coverings during citizenship oaths within 100 days, he said.
"When a government tables legislation, it's more than just desire," Lebel said. "We have the political belief that this is the way it has to be."
The niqab ban was inspired in part by Quebec's experience with the so-called charter of values, a document introduced by the Parti Quebecois government which banned the display of overtly religious symbols by people in the public sector.
While the charter was extensively criticized and partly blamed for the defeat of the PQ government in 2014, the issue of the niqab still resonates in the province, where the Conservatives hope to increase their seat count.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said he agrees with the Conservative position on the citizenship ceremony but took it farther.
"There should be a law clearly stating that ... voting, citizenship ceremonies and government services offered and received all be conducted with the face uncovered," he said while campaigning in Montreal.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau framed it as a matter of protecting minority rights.
"In any situation where a government chooses to limit or restrict individual rights or freedoms, it has to clearly explain why," he said in Calgary. "This government has not done that."
Ontario's attorney general said if leave to appeal to the Supreme Court is granted the province will intervene "to defend the rights and freedoms we hold dear," as it did before the Federal Court of Appeal.
"Ontario's position before the court was that the federal policy in question goes against our deeply held views on equality and tolerance for the religious beliefs of everyone in our society, and it is inconsistent with Canadian values of inclusion and diversity," Madeleine Meilleur said in a statement.
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