09/28/2015 09:53 EDT | Updated 09/28/2016 05:12 EDT

NDP, Liberals Mitigate Niqab Issue In Quebec Ahead Of Vote

"We've created a problem for electoral purposes. It's completely sad."


QUEBEC — The Conservative party hadn't planned to make the niqab an election issue, according to Quebec City-area candidate Gerard Deltell -- an assertion contradicted by the party.  But planned or not, the issue is making waves in Deltell's riding and across Quebec.

"What brought this issue into the news is the Federal Court of Appeal," Deltell said, insisting that no party could just order the issue to the forefront of the campaign.

The fixed-date election meant the Conservative party could not have planned the timing — "essentially, we cannot control or 'monitor' the agenda" — Deltell said during a recent interview in the Louis-Saint-Laurent riding he hopes to represent after Oct. 19.

That's not exactly true, corrects Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the party. On the contrary, the "agenda" was well-established, and it simply benefited from a "coincidence."

Loubier said the Conservatives had long-planned to bring the niqab debate to the forefront on Sept. 16 — the eve of the Federal Court of Appeal decision in the case of Zunera Ishaq, who challenged a government directive banning the wearing of face veils while taking the oath of citizenship.

Foreseen or not, the niqab debate could become one of the turning points of the campaign.  It remains to be seen whether the trend continues, but according to polls it could hurt the Liberals and New Democrats.

"It's costing me some voter intentions this week," said Youri Rousseau, the Liberal candidate in Louis-Saint-Laurent. "But I don't know if it will cost votes on Oct. 19.  It's not the 'ballot question,' so I don't think so." 

Rousseau, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, pulls out a political cartoon showing Conservative Leader Stephen Harper removing a niqab behind which he'd been hiding.

"We've created a problem for electoral purposes. It's completely sad," he said.

The 39-year-old Liberal candidate said the citizens he's meeting have already stopped talking about the niqab. Since reading last week's newspapers, they "understand," and won't be fooled, he said.

Naturally, just minutes later as he resumed door-knocking, Rousseau came face-to-face with a young man who gave him an earful on identity issues.

"I have nothing against Muslims, but there's only Stephen Harper who can throw a spoke in their wheels," he said.

The Liberal candidate sighed as he continued on his way.

"I don't like the veil either, but I'm not promoting it," said Rousseau, who describes himself as a "realistic idealist" who doesn't see the need to legislate on a matter affecting a handful of people whom society wants to tell "how to dress." 

Especially, he says, because the children and grandchildren of women who come to Canada wearing niqabs "won't wear the veil, because we'll have been an open, generous, welcoming society, like we always have been," he said.

His NDP rival, G. Daniel Caron, was on the receiving end of a joke when he asked a woman in the riding whether she would vote.

"Yes, I'm going to vote veiled," she said.

Like Rousseau, Caron — who hopes to keep the seat his NDP predecessor Alexandrine Latendresse stole from the Conservatives — hopes the campaign will move on to other topics.

"The niqab isn't the issue in this campaign," said Caron, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine. "The issue is the Conservative record and what kind of government we want for the next four years."

For Deltell, the issue is one of "common sense." And unlike his rivals, he says he doesn't believe the question is dividing voters.

"Nine out of 10 people can't be wrong," he said.

"Too bad for the others, too bad if the NDP and the Liberals are completely disconnected from reality and have no sense of Canadian values," he said. "That's their problem, but I'm very proud to be a member of the (national) party that has Canadian common sense, and who proudly defends it."

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