09/24/2015 10:48 EDT | Updated 09/24/2015 10:59 EDT

French Debate: Mulcair Attacks Rivals On Niqab Issue

A combative NDP Leader Tom Mulcair went on the offensive during Thursday's fiery French-language leaders' debate as he attacked his rivals over whether face coverings should be outlawed at citizenship ceremonies.

Mulcair raised his voice over his opponents several times to slam the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois for supporting a ban on citizenship applicants wearing face coverings when they swear the oath.

He also reiterated his support for the existing rule that states anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before making their pledge.

The issue of face coverings at these ceremonies involves a tiny number of applicants — but the wider, emotional debate on the subject has the potential for far-reaching electoral implications.

At one point, the delicate and divisive issue saw Mulcair and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper facing each other down, each trying to talk over the other. The scene forced the moderator to interrupt in an attempt to cool the situation and regain control.

Mulcair called Harper's push to ban veils like the Islamic niqab at the ceremonies "a weapon of mass distraction" to divert public attention from what he described as the Tories' poor track record.

"Mr. Harper is trying to hide his record behind the niqab," said Mulcair, who found himself under fire by his rivals throughout the two-hour debate in Montreal.

Harper, who has argued it's "offensive" to cover one's face while taking the citizenship oath, said Thursday that people should not hide their identities when joining the Canadian family.

"Mr. Mulcair, I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she's a woman," Harper said.

The NDP leader struck back.

"Attack the oppressors, don't attack women ... attack the oppressor if you believe there is oppression in there and have the courage to do so," Mulcair said.

"But it's not by depriving these women of their citizenship and their rights that you'll be able to help them."

The face-covering controversy re-emerged last week when the Federal Court of Appeal upheld an earlier court ruling to allow a woman to take the oath without taking off her niqab.

The clash over niqabs was only one of several issues that erupted into intense skirmishes between Mulcair and the other leaders.

On the subject of national unity, Mulcair was targeted by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for the NDP's policy, which would accept a simple majority plus one for Quebec to secede in a future referendum on independence.

The existing Clarity Act, introduced by the Liberals, calls for clear majority.

The NDP policy, known as the Sherbrooke Declaration, is supported by many Quebecers. But it's federalists outside the province who would likely take issue, fearing it would make it easier to split up the country.

Trudeau accused Mulcair of hiding the policy from Canadians outside Quebec.

He warned it could lead to the Constitution being ripped apart by a single vote and described Mulcair's position as worrying for someone who wants to be Canada's prime minister.

"He doesn't talk about 50 per cent plus one in English," Trudeau said.

Amid the exchange, Mulcair snapped back at Trudeau, arguing it is a fair, democratic policy. He also noted the Sherbrooke Declaration is available in English.

With many eyes in Quebec watching the widely broadcast French-language debate, Mulcair, still the presumed front-runner in the province, faced significant pressure to deliver a solid performance.

Leaders will square off in French again next Friday.

The niqab debate, however, might pose the most-significant threat to the NDP in Quebec.

Using a pre-emptive tactic, Mulcair tried to get out in front of the issue Wednesday by delivering a speech that explained the party's position and called for calm on the matter.

The address, which he gave in Montreal, was also an attempt for him to get his message out without the interruptions he would face in the tumult of a debate.

However, it remains to be seen whether the move will help the NDP cause, which appears to be slipping in Quebec.

The issue hits home for many voters in a province where there is considerable support for a niqab ban at the ceremonies. Quebec has seen explosive, emotional debates in recent years over the accommodation of religious minorities.

As a result, the NDP's firm stance on the issue threatens to chip away at its bedrock of support in the province.

Recent polls have suggested the NDP's support inside its Quebec fortress has started to sag — a change that could echo beyond the province's borders and have a major impact on the outcome of the Oct. 19 election.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe argued that more than 80 per cent of Quebecers support a ban on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Duceppe said imposing a ban is a question of defending equality between men and women.

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