08/25/2017 18:26 EDT | Updated 08/25/2017 20:31 EDT

Niki Ashton Backtracks On Statement Dealing With Quebec Religious Rights Debate

Her stance sparked criticism on Twitter.

OTTAWA — NDP leadership contender Niki Ashton attempted Friday to walk back earlier comments on the right of Quebec's National Assembly to legislate secularism after a firestorm erupted on social media and in party circles.

"Perhaps my statement isn't clear," the Manitoba MP said in a string of tweets to individuals who criticized her stated willingness to allow Quebec to legislate against religious rights.

"I will not compromise on women's right to wear what she chooses or on respecting our rights & freedoms," she said.

Niki Ashton speaks as she participates in the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race in Ottawa on March 12, 2017.

Ashton had told HuffPost Canada on Thursday that while she believes "there is no justification" for a government to tell a woman, or anyone, what they should wear, and she hoped no party in Quebec would see women's clothing as something to exploit for short-term popularity...

"That being said, there is a consensus in Quebec's political leaders emerging on secularism, and the Canadian government should respect the will of Quebecers on this matter," she said in a statement. "The place religion has held in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution has been perceived widely differently than in the rest of Canada, and this is something the federal government must respect."

Ashton had been asked to comment on whether she believes women wearing face coverings should be prevented from receiving or delivering government services, as the provincial Liberal government in Quebec is attempting to do with Bill 62 — effectively targeting Muslim women who wear a niqab or a burqa.

Ashton, who did not make herself available for an interview Thursday or Friday, declined through a campaign aide to state her position on Bill 62.

"Regarding Bill 62, Niki is not going to deal with a hypothetical piece of legislation, but as leader of Canada's NDP and as prime minister, Niki would work with Quebec and Quebecer's [sic] to ensure that secularism is not used as an opportunity for racial discrimination under any piece of legislation," her campaign manager, Jenn Prosser, told HuffPost.

"Once the National Assembly has finished debating Bill 62 and it is public in it's [sic] final form, Niki will be more than happy to discuss the particulars then," she said.

Ashton is confident that religious minorities will be protected through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Prosser added.

A firestorm erupted on Twitter Thursday after HuffPost published a story about the candidates' positions on Quebec's effort to create a more secular state.

"Millennial feminist principled socialist @nikiashton ok with state denying services to women based on religious/cultural observance #ndpldr," tweeted a user named William Norman.

"And I'm especially baffled that @nikiashton came out in support of this odious policy," said another user named John Neary.

Ian Capstick, a former NDP staffer and television pundit, also questioned Caron's and Ashton's stances with some off-colour language:

The topic was forced after NDP leadership hopeful Guy Caron released a Quebec policy in the lead-up to the contest's French-language debate in Montreal on Sunday. He said he believed that if the NDP was serious about acknowledging the province's nationhood and its right to self-determination, than as leader he would respect the National Assembly's right to legislate on issues of secularism.

"Quebec's different view of secularism from the rest of Canada is not a minority current but a broad consensus among the province's political class," he stated. "I am making it clear that, above all, an NDP leader must respect Quebec's national character."

In an interview with HuffPost, Caron added that: "If secularism is actually used as a screen for racism or Islamophobia, that will be condemned, but ... right now, Bill 62 is something that comes out of Quebec's distinctive and historical path. If it is done in a respectful, if it is done especially respecting the consensus in Quebec society, then that is Quebec's decision."

Bill 62, of course, is discriminatory.

Ashton's campaign was asked if she agreed with Caron. Her press secretary responded that Ashton's position was "quite close to it."

"It's quite close to it", was not meant to be taken as a "Yes," Prosser told HuffPost. "It was meant that it is close to his position in that he respects Quebec as a distinct society but he also believes in a woman's right to wear what she wants. However, clearly our position diverges when it comes to the line in the sand, so to speak.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
NDP MP Niki Ashton poses outside of her Toronto hotel on Sept. 8, 2016.

"Niki's position is that while she respect's [sic] Quebec's distinct society and distinct cultural conversation around secularism, a persons' [sic] rights and freedoms are not bargaining chips. They are a line in the sand, and should legislation impede on those rights and freedoms, the federal government would have to work with Quebec to find a way forward that didn't preclude one or another."

In a second statement attributed to Ashton, the MP, however, seemed to want to have it both ways, respecting Quebecers' right to discriminate while protecting the discriminated.

"I will respect the will of Quebecer's [sic] on the question of secularism and recognize the distinct nature of the conversation, but as leader and as Prime Minister I am committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of all and will defend those rights and freedoms," she said in the revised statement.

For the fourth day in a row, NDP leadership contender Jagmeet Singh declined to share his views on Bill 62 or Quebec's right to legislate efforts at secularism in the public service. His campaign said he had an "absolutely crazy travel schedule" and promised to make him available soon.

Ontario MP and leadership hopeful Charlie Angus, however, made a sly reference to his position.

Amid the controversy engulfing his opponents, he tweeted:

"What binds us together is so much greater than the false politics that would divide us."

Angus had previously told HuffPost that he didn't trust politicians to dictate the rights of minorities and that "these things shouldn't be left up to politicians but to the courts and Charter."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove a tweet that was erroneously attributed to the NDP's socialist caucus.

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