Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Niqab: In defence of Thomas Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair: Man of Principle
Mr. Mulcair was asked a simple question, loaded with peril, and he answered it very clearly in the last debate on foreign affairs. His answer to the question whether he agreed with the federal court’s decision regarding the right of a woman to cover her face with a niqab was Yes.

Yes, a woman could do so if she wished for personal reasons or for religious reasons to cover her face during the ceremonial part of the citizenship ceremony.

No, she had no right to cover her face during the part of the citizen admission process (that precedes the ceremony) that requires a would-be citizen to identify herself or himself, to ensure that she or he is indeed the person seeking admission as a citizen of our country.

Mr. Mulcair’s answer was both reasonable, and moral. And consistent with the highest values of our society. He deserves credit, and our support, for taking the stand that he did when he answered that question.

The fact that he is now losing support in Quebec for his answer, is regrettable.

The issue of the niqab is a complicated, and little understood in Anglophone Canada. In the Rest of Canada, many jump to the conclusion that so many Canadians living in Quebec who do not wish to countenance the wearing of a niqab by a woman in any public office or during any interaction between a citizen and the state, do so out of racial prejudice.

This might be true of some, but it not true for many of those who object to the use of the niqab in such circumstances. Quebec has been wrestling with what is called the identity issue for years now. It is a spillover from the bitter discussions that have and are taking place in many member states of the European Union.

The issue is complex, because woven into it are several strands, some at variance with other strands, others supporting other strands.

One strand is racial animosity towards Muslims. If the opposition to the wearing of a niqab is based on such racial animosity, then those who hate that way are not displaying the core values of Canadian society. Our society is not founded on racial hate as a mainspring; nor do our laws have any such basis. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms rightfully sets its face against any such racial hatred as being a permissible driver of any action by any level of government with any citizen. To those who oppose the niqab because of such racial hatred, we – all Canadians, no matter where they might live – should say: Enough! Those are not Canadian values. And we support Mr. Mulcair against any attacks on these grounds.

Another strand is the fear of many people that their existence as a separate, identifiable cultural or ethnic group (be it German, Italian, British, French, in Europe; or Francophone in Quebec, descended primarily from French settlers so many years ago) is threatened if others who do not share those group values are allowed into the country, and prefer to practice a different set of values. The Canadian response to such fears has been the conscious choice of multicultural diversity, as a source of strength, as opposed to forced assimilation. And that has worked very well. It is a core Canadian value.

However, a variant of that strand of concern is the fear of a being swamped ‘in my own country.’ This is especially true of many people in Quebec, who see themselves as a small group, facing up to the huge mass of non-French people in north America. We understand such concern, and we support steps taken to preserve the cultural values, as long as those steps do not deprive other Canadians of their own core rights.

In the European Union the niqab has become a symbol of attempts to preserve a way of life, as in France. It has become a lightning rod, a symbol, used to represent several different strands. And it is very effective when used this way, because it is so identifiable.

There is nothing in the decision of the federal court on the wearing of a niqab during the ceremonial party of the citizenship admission process that threatens the swamping of anyone in Quebec. We should stand with Mr. Mulcair in supporting the federal court decision against those if that is their primary reason for opposition to it. It can in no way be described in and of itself as a tipping point, which will plunge Quebec into chaos and unwanted cultural change.

Another strand is the wish to preserve a core right that has taken decades to be recognized in Canada: the right of equality between men and women. This is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is a basic Canadian right. But to those who say that a woman who chooses to wear a niqab while celebrating her admission as a citizen of our country, is being prevented – by the very act of wearing the niqab – from being an equal to a man, we say No, we do not agree with you. We understand that some fear that women are forced to wear niqabs by men as public evidence of the inequality of women compared to men. If there is any force involved in this fashion, then the use of such force is contrary to basic Canadian values, and should be resisted. Physical force against such a woman’s person would be dealt with under our current Criminal Law. Social pressure, on the other hand, should be dealt with by other means, including those dealt with below.

However, the federal court case did not revolve around this issue; it dealt with the wish of a woman to wear  her niqab in part of the admission process. That is as far as it goes. And that is what Mr. Mulcair agreed with.

Justin Trudeau forcefully stated his view: that just as the state has no right to tell a woman what to wear, so too the state has no right to tell a woman what not to wear. If those who are opposing Mr. Mulcair are doing so because they believe that any level of government in Canada (city, provincial or federal) should legislate against the wearing of a niqab in any interaction between a citizen and that government, including but not limited to the ceremonial part of the citizenship process, because this reduces a woman’s equality with men, then we have a wider issue.

I side with Justin Trudeau in his argument about the limits on the rights of any level of government in Canada to force a woman to wear clothing acceptable to those who run that government.

However, to those who feel strongly that disapproval should be voiced by citizens against the wearing of a niqab by a woman, because they believe it is a symbol of the oppression of women, then I say: By all means. Protest, debate, write letters to the editors of newspapers, hold meetings. Exercise your lawful rights to discuss any topic you wish to; that is your right under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But do so without expecting the state to step in and legislate the opposite unless our basic rules of law require it (such as witnesses in criminal cases, where there are conflicting values at stake; admission as a citizen where identification is necessary at some stage).

Yet another strand in this complex fabric is the desire of many to have the state be a secular one, rather than a religious one. If they see the wearing of a niqab as being a visible symbol of the interference of a religion with the secular nature of Canada, and therefore want to ban it through legislation to prevent the intrusion of religion into the secular nature of the Canadian state, then the answer to them is rightfully No.

No, the state does not have the right to ban a niqab simply because of fears of the secular nature of the state being undermined by such an act. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets limits on the rights of the state to interfere with the rights of citizens, including religion. There are other means apart from banning the use of niqabs to address the secularism issue. We encourage others to pursue those lawful methods (discussion, example, education, etc.).

That brings us to the despicable behaviour of those who would use the niqab issue as akin to tossing a dead cat on a table during a discussion, in an attempt to change the channel on discussions being held during our long election campaign. 

To focus on the niqab issue with the primary purpose of stirring up racial or religious hatred, in an effort to shore up support for a political party that wishes to become the government of this country, is disgusting. As voters, we should expect and demand of anyone wishing to become prime minister of this country a standard of moral behaviour that does not stoop to such immorality.

Just as there are limits in the freedom of speech rights of a person to the crying of Fire! in a crowded cinema, so too are there limits to how low a politician should be able to stoop in order to set one Canadian against another, or one group of Canadians against other groups, just to gain power. Anyone who does that, for those purposes, should be treated with contempt, and rejected.

Mr. Mulcair, you are an honourable man, and a good representative of the voters in your  riding. You have displayed very high standards of morality in your public dealings at various levels of government, and you are leader of a party that has high moral principles. Your position on the federal court niqab decision is an honourable one, fully in accord with core Canadian values.

I and many others, salute you for the stand you have taken.

And I can assure you that you and your party will have a very significant role to play after the October 19 election, no matter the result of the vote tally. We will, as Canadians, be looking to you to maintain your high moral standards, and to help remedy the debasement of our political values that we have seen take place over these past few years.

During the Friday debate, I recommend that your persist in your defence of your principled position on the federal court niqab decision, and call out all those who would use such issues to divide Canadian from Canadian, for base purposes. We will be sending your good wishes during that part of the debate.

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