MONTREAL — NDP Leader Tom Mulcair attempted Wednesday to head off expected attacks from rivals on the simmering niqab-ban controversy, a proactive manoeuvre that came on the eve of a key French-language debate.
Mulcair used what was supposed to be a quieter, pre-debate day on the campaign trail to deliver a Montreal speech to his base in Quebec.
The delicate issue about those who wear face coverings at citizenship ceremonies was a major theme in the address.
The thorny subject resurfaced last week on the campaign trail when the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a previous court decision to allow a woman to take the oath without removing her niqab.
On Wednesday, Mulcair called for tolerance and calm discussion as he stood in a province that has been ground zero for impassioned disputes in recent years over the accommodation of religious minorities.
As the front-runner in Quebec, Mulcair's opponents are expected to continue their attacks on his party's niqab position during Thursday's debate, which will likely draw a large Quebec audience and prove to be a critical test for the NDP leader.
Mulcair said Wednesday that he agrees with the existing rule that states anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before swearing the oath.
By contrast, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said it's "offensive" to cover one's face while taking the actual oath and has insisted the veils are "rooted in a culture that is anti-women."
The Conservatives want women to be required to show their faces not only at a point during the process of applying for citizenship, but also during the citizenship ceremony itself.
The federal government is fighting a court ruling that threw out Ottawa's requirement that citizenship applicants must uncover their faces when they take the oath. The government is seeking to take that Federal Court of Appeal ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada and indicated last week that it wants the decision stayed while it appeals.
Mulcair said in French on Wednesday that emphasizing the niqab issue was the latest from the Conservatives' "bag of tricks" in what he added has become a "truly toxic" campaign.
He noted that while it's an emotional issue for some, it only directly affects a small number of people who are in a very specific situation.
"But it stirs up fear of the unknown," Mulcair said in an effort to position himself above the fray.
"By focusing on what divides us, negative discourse that derails the election-campaign debate distracts us from what's essential."
On the niqab issue, the NDP is also facing attacks from the Bloc Quebecois, which it nearly wiped off the province's electoral map in 2011. The Bloc has argued that the constitutional notwithstanding clause could be used to supersede the Charter of Rights in order to ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.
"I understand that many view the niqab as a symbol of the oppression of women," Mulcair said.
"And on that, let me be clear: No one has the right to tell a woman what she must — or must not — wear."
Mulcair continued by saying the country should reach out to oppressed women hoping to become citizens.
"It is not by depriving them of their Canadian citizenship and their rights that we can help them," he said.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Mulcair faced several questions in both French and English on the niqab issue.
He was also asked whether he would support a Conservative minority government.
"There isn't a snowball's chance in hell," he said.
"There's no likelihood that the NDP would ever, under any circumstances, be able to support Mr. Harper, his divisive politics, his backward economics that have left 400,000 manufacturing jobs disappear over the last few years."
That echoed a pledge from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who said Tuesday there are "no circumstances" in which he would support Harper staying on as prime minister with a minority.
In the morning, Mulcair joined Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre for a wide-ranging news conference, which included a reiteration of an NDP promise to reverse Canada Post's plan to phase out door-to-door mail delivery.
That was welcome news for Coderre, who last month used a jackhammer on the concrete base of a community mailbox that the mayor said was installed without consultation.
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