QUEBEC — The prospect of losing votes in Quebec hasn't discouraged Tom Mulcair from digging in on his position that women should be allowed to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies.
The NDP leader fielded more questions about the delicate subject on Friday, a day after he clashed with his rivals over it during the French-language leaders' debate.
The issue is particularly tricky for Mulcair and appears to pose a real threat to his party's base in Quebec.
The province, which was nearly swept by the NDP four years ago, is home to many who back vocal calls by the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois to bar women from wearing the Islamic niqab when they swear the citizenship oath.
Meanwhile, recent polls suggest the NDP has seen its support slip in Quebec.
The question, however, also appears to resonate in other parts of the country. A recent government-funded poll suggested there's wide support across Canada for a ban on veils during the ceremonies.
Mulcair was asked Friday whether he might regret being on the wrong side of public opinion if it ultimately prevented him from becoming prime minister.
"I've taken positions in my life that weren't immediately appreciated — I'm willing to live with that," Mulcair said at a news conference northwest of Quebec City, where he committed to spend $105 million over three years to bolster the struggling forestry sector.
"But I also respect other people's views, but I'm going to continue to make the point that we live in a society where we're lucky enough to have individual rights — and you either believe in those rights, which is my case, or you find a way around them.
"I'm going to continue to believe in those rights."
Mulcair continued by acknowledging that the niqab issue is an emotional and sensitive one for some.
"But I also understand that governing is about leading and leading is about setting your priorities and telling people who you are and what you believe in," he said.
Mulcair has said he supports the existing rule that states anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face in order to identify themselves before taking the oath.
The face-covering controversy re-emerged recently after the Federal Court of Appeal upheld an earlier court ruling to allow a woman to take the oath without taking off her niqab.
In Quebec, there is considerable support for a niqab ban at the ceremonies. The province has been ground zero for explosive debates in recent years over the accommodation of religious minorities.
Harper has said it's offensive to cover one's face while taking the citizenship oath and has argued the veils are "rooted in a culture that is anti-women."
Less than 24 hours after Thursday's debate, Mulcair crossed paths in the provincial capital with his Bloc counterpart Gilles Duceppe, who continued hammering away on the niqab issue.
"We're told it's not a real debate, that we should move on to something else," Duceppe said of the niqab in a luncheon speech.
"I will tell you that it's not a distraction to talk about the fundamental equality between man and woman."
Duceppe pledged to introduce a bill, if he wins a seat in the election, to prevent people with their faces covered from voting or providing and receiving public services.
Later Friday, Mulcair met Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, an outspoken politician who expressed his opposition to the niqab on his Facebook page this week.
"No religious reason should be allowed to serve as an excuse to justify a practice that makes women inferior," Labeaume wrote in the posting.
"I had avoided until today from publicly expressing myself on these questions. I felt the need today to clarify my position."
After leaving his meeting with Labeaume, Mulcair was asked by reporters whether the niqab issue came up.
"We had lots of discussions on files important for Quebec City," Mulcair said, side-stepping the query.
Earlier in the week, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre explained how he disagreed with Mulcair's position that faces can remain covered during citizenship ceremonies — a statement he made as the two men stood side by side at a news conference.
On Friday, Mulcair was asked whether he was disappointed that an issue that affects only a very small number of women seems to have overtaken his campaign, at least in part.
He insisted the primary issue in the campaign is who will replace Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
Earlier Friday, Mulcair promised to bolster the forestry industry with $55 million for manufacturing facilities, $40-million for research and development and $10 million to promote Canadian wood products abroad.
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