Steven Blaney Reignites Niqab Debate At Start Of Tory Leadership Bid

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A Conservative leadership candidate is reopening a divisive debate over the wearing of niqabs and other face-covering veils.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney announced Monday that, if elected prime minister, he would be prepared to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure faces are uncovered when would-be Canadians swear the citizenship oath, as well as when citizens vote and work in the federal public service.

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Steven Blaney speaks to supporters in Levis, Que. on Oct. 23, 2016. (Photo: Jacques Boissinot/CP)

“Uncovering your face is a day-to-day requirement for every Canadian whether it is to obtain a driver licence or getting a passport for obvious security reasons,” Blaney said in a media release. “This same requirement should apply to all those who swear allegiance to our country, vote in-person at a polling station or work within the federal public service.”

Blaney pledged to reintroduce as government legislation his 2011 private member’s bill that would have demanded voters show their faces before voting or registering to vote. The bill would have additional amendments related to the citizenship ceremony and federal bureaucrats.

Blaney said he "will not hesitate" to use the notwithstanding clause if the Supreme Court of Canada should “oppose the will of Parliament.” Section 33 of the Charter allows the federal Parliament or provincial legislatures to override certain fundamental freedoms, and legal and equality rights for no more than five years.

No federal Parliament has ever invoked the clause, but governments in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon have used the controversial tool.

Testing on 'Canada's core principles'

Blaney also pledged to change the citizenship test to ensure prospective Canadians are “sufficiently tested” on their proficiency with one of the two official languages and “Canada’s core principles.” He said a Blaney government would also tweak the citizenship oath to incorporate those “core principles.”

The former public safety minister under the government of Stephen Harper also said more investments would be made in security agencies to screen “potential national security threats.”

The right of Muslim women to wear the face-covering niqab during the citizenship ceremony became a major topic in last year’s election campaign. Pakistan-born woman Zunera Ishaq successfully challenged the former Tory government’s ban on the practice in a federal court and eventually took her citizenship oath while wearing the veil, after confirming her identity.

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Zunera Ishaq is pictured in a lawyer's offices in Toronto in 2015. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)

Harper had long argued that covering one’s face at the moment they become a citizen was “offensive,” and said the veils were rooted in a culture that is “anti-women.”

Liberals and New Democrats accused Tories of trying to use the debate as a wedge and a distraction from more important matters.

Things got even more heated when Conservatives pledged on the campaign trail that they would bring in an RCMP tip line for so-called “barbaric cultural practices.”

The two Tories behind that announcement — Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch — are also running for the Tory leadership.

On Monday, Tory MP Deepak Obhrai, who is also running for leader, took to Twitter to say he disagreed with Blaney.

"My campaign is based on inclusiveness and embracing diversity," Obhrai tweeted.


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