OTTAWA — The question of whether Canadian Muslim women should wear the niqab is a non-issue for the government's hand-picked sounding board on culture and security, says the Montreal professor who heads the panel. The matter of face coverings became an election campaign focus as the Conservative government turned to the courts in an unsuccessful effort to preserve a rule banning them during the taking of citizenship ceremony oaths. Stephen Harper's party insists obscuring the face at the very moment one becomes a citizen runs contrary to Canadian values. Opponents have accused him of using a culturally sensitive issue to stir up xenophobic sentiment and, in the process, the votes of people who feel threatened by unfamiliar traditions. The topic has "never been an issue" for the federally appointed Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security, which meets every few months, said Myrna Lashley, the body's long-time chairwoman. "I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. And I don't want to go there. I just wish the whole thing would go away," said Lashley, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Montreal's McGill University who studies terrorism and security. "I'm a researcher, I'm not a politician. That's their thing, not mine." Even so, the government recently appointed three new members to the panel who have publicly expressed support for Harper's opposition to the niqab at ceremonies. The roundtable has not met since the appointments. "I can make no comment because I haven't met these people," Lashley said. Over the years, members have been briefed by federal officials and outside experts on issues including countering violent extremism, migration and Canada-U.S. security programs. Lashley has a clear vision of how the roundtable's future work should proceed. "We continue talking about fostering good relations between Canadians," she said. "We continue talking about fostering good relations between Canadians and their government. And we focus on empowering youth, and helping communities to build resilience." Lashley, who was born in Barbados, sees Canadians as "a big old family" whose members bicker among themselves, but fiercely defend one another when facing a common threat. "My own research shows when Canada's security is an issue, people put aside their doctrinal, ethnic, or whatever differences you want to throw into the mix," she said. "They're going to put the country's security first. "And so driving wedges between ourselves, to me, is an exercise in futility." As the one-year anniversary of a jihadi-inspired attack at the National War Memorial approaches, Lashley said Canadians can not let such terrible episodes change the way they live their lives. "I don't think we should give in to that kind of fear," she said. "Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely. But I think it behooves us also to step back and recognize that our security forces have actually done a good job in identifying where the threats are, and deterring them."
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