10/01/2015 06:07 EDT | Updated 10/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Conservatives Stop Short Of Ruling Out Ban On Niqabs For Public Servants

Conservative candidate Pierre Poilievre did not rule out the possibility of a re-elected Tory government pursuing a ban on face coverings for public servants during a Thursday morning press conference in Ottawa. 

Poilievre, who is the lead minister for the national capital region and running for re-election in the Ontario riding of Carleton, met with media to discuss an open letter from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to the country's public servants that outlined the government's commitment to resolving a number of ongoing collective bargaining issues. 

During the question and answer period with journalists after the announcement, a reporter brought up the government's attempt to impose a ban on face coverings during the oath of citizenship — which the Tories have attempted to enshrine in law. 

The ban was struck down by the courts, but the Conservatives have vowed to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Poilievre was asked whether, given the heated debate around the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, a Tory government might also try to impose a similar niqab ban for public servants.

"In Quebec, they have this idea of public servants not wearing a niqab. Is that something you guys would ever consider if re-elected?" asked B.J. Siekierski of iPolitics.

The Parti Québécois unsuccessfully attempted to ban overt religious symbols, including niqabs, in the public service as part of the Quebec charter of values in 2013. 

"What I can tell you is that our existing policy … is that it is completely reasonable to ask someone to show their face while their giving an oath of citizenship," Poilievre said in response to Siekierski's question. "It is completely reasonable to ask someone to show their face while they're giving an oath of citizenship.

"I have been at citizenship ceremonies where people have attended wearing a face covering, and I have witnessed them remove those face coverings. And I think that's entirely reasonable."

He said the oath is a "sacred moment of citizenship and loyalty to country," which is also why it must be taken in person.

The reporter followed up, asking, "Would it be fair to say that that is the extent of any sort of niqab ban, or may we hear other things down the road?"

After a brief pause, Poilievre said, "Well, you'll have to wait until we're down the road to find out what's down the road, but what I can tell you today is that this is the message that I have to share with you."

It was not the first time the Tories have hinted, albeit indirectly, that if re-elected they may attempt to impose further measures regarding religious face coverings through legislation.

In June, for example, the Liberal government in Quebec tabled Bill 62, aimed at barring public servants from wearing face-covering religious garments at work. At the time, Tory candidate and minister for multiculturism Tim Uppal weighed in, saying the Tories support the proposed legislation.

"We broadly support Quebec's legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services," Uppal said, adding that the Conservative government "will consider what other measures may be necessary" beyond a ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies. 

Contentious talks with public service unions

Poilievre was in Ottawa in an effort to repair relations with public servants, many of whom feel disillusioned about the government's attempt in the last budget bill to save $900 million by overhauling sick leaves and disability programs. 

Thirteen federal public service unions have filed legal challenges to the budget bill. 

The government wants to replace the current system of banking sick days with one that provides public sector employees access to short-term disability benefits provided through a private insurer. The debate over sick leave has been extremely contentious since the newest round of collective bargaining began in 2014. 

In Harper's open letter, the Tories argue that more than 60 per cent of public servants don't have enough sick days banked to cover a full period (13 weeks) of short-term disability while 25 per cent have fewer than 10 days of banked sick leave.

Many new and young employees have no banked sick days at all while a "select few of long-tenured individuals" have amassed more days than they could ever "reasonably need," according to the letter. 

Poilievre said that the NDP and Liberals have intentionally obscured the facts on the campaign trail by saying that the Tories would take away banked sick days without compensating for the time lost and would jeopardize employee pensions by moving away from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan or other shared-risk pension models. 

Poilievre said such allegations are categorically false.

"There will be no changes whatsoever to the pension plan going forward, nor have any been considered," he said. 

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