And once the courts decide, he says Canadians should accept the ruling and move on — just as they did when the courts settled other controversies like same-sex marriage and the right of Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans.
Chretien, who was justice minister when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, waded into the niqab controversy Saturday after rallying the troops at a barbecue for Ottawa Centre Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna.
He seemed intent on lowering the temperature on what has become a heated debate among political leaders in the second half of the marathon campaign to the Oct. 19 federal election.
"If you live in a society of law, you respect the law," Chretien said.
"It's not am I comfortable or not (with women covering their faces). Makes no difference at all. It's a question of rights and it will be for the court to decide."
Stephen Harper's Conservative government is asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned a ministerial directive prohibiting a Muslim woman wearing a niqab from taking the oath of citizenship. Harper and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe have cast the niqab as a symbol of the oppression of women that is inconsistent with Canadians' belief in gender equality.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have acknowledged that the sight of women covering their faces is troublesome to many Canadians. But they've argued it's a matter of religious freedom and that the state has no business dictating what women cannot wear.
Chretien noted that many Canadians were once adamantly opposed to Mounties wearing turbans or gay couples marrying. Yet once the top court ruled that the charter guaranteed their right to do so, he said Canadians quickly adjusted.
"After a few months or a few years, nobody ever mentioned it again," he said of the turban controversy. "Sometimes (the courts) force you to accept things."
"Many times, the court made decisions that I was not comfortable with," he added. "But they were interpreting the law of the land and a reasonable leader, a respectable leader, respects the rule of law and accepts the judgment of the court."
Chretien, who joined Trudeau on the campaign trail two weeks ago, repeated his praise for the Liberal plan to run modest deficits and invest heavily in infrastructure in a bid to kickstart economic growth.
During a brief speech to McKenna's supporters, Chretien boasted that his government eliminated a then-record deficit and posted 10 consecutive surplus budgets. But he later said that record is not inconsistent with his current support for Trudeau's plan to run deficits.
"The best way to have surplus is to have a good economy," said Chretien.
He noted that his government ended up slaying the deficit much faster than he'd promised and he credited his own infrastructure investments at the time for revving the economy and, thus, increasing tax revenues.
Chretien also repeated his criticism of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's position that a bare majority referendum vote of 50 per cent plus one would be sufficient to trigger negotiations on Quebec secession. He accused Mulcair of pandering to win separatist votes.
"For me, I was not trying to get their votes. I was trying to defeat them," he said to cheers from the partisan crowd.
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