Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks to cultural groups about the value of Canadian citizenship, Monday, December 12, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL - There was mixed reaction from Canadian Muslim groups to news Monday that prospective Canadians can no longer wear veils, like the Islamic niqab or the face-shielding burka, while taking the oath of citizenship.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that new Canadians will have to remove any face-coverings while they swear the oath.
The response from two prominent Muslim groups couldn't have been more different: some heartily applauded the move and others denounced it as causing unnecessary trepidation in the community.
The new rule, which requires oath-takers to show their entire face, takes effect immediately and signals the latest in a string of changes to Canada's immigration process under the Conservative government.
Kenney said it's not just a question of "deep principle" for someone to show their face while taking the oath in front of their fellow citizens, it's also a matter of legal concern.
"I don't know how we can verify that someone whose face is covered is actually taking the oath that the law requires of them," he told a news conference in Montreal.
"This is a public act of witness in front of your fellow citizens, in front of the law — and you should be willing to show who you are."
Kenney said he received complaints from citizens, MPs and citizenship judges to the effect that it's difficult to ensure individuals whose faces are covered are actually taking the oath.
He said those concerns prompted him to raise the issue during a recent meeting of citizenship judges in Ottawa.
"I asked (the judges) if this was a widespread problem and I saw a lot of them said that it was," Kenney said.
He said many judges from large, urban areas told him citizenship candidates wearing face-coverings regularly present themselves at ceremonies, essentially every week.
The news provoked mixed emotions in Canada's Muslim community.
The acting director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations opposed the rule, which he said swiftly stirred up consternation.
Ihsaan Gardee said a young, veil-wearing woman, who was scheduled to take part in a citizenship ceremony Tuesday, called his office and was no longer sure if she would attend.
"They don't know where they stand now," he said of the concerns.
Gardee said accommodations can be made. For example, he noted that people wearing face-coverings could recite the oath into a microphone.
He added that the rule change also seems strange because very few women in Canada even wear the niqab or burka.
"The idea that he should call into question somebody's sincerity when they're taking the citizenship oath, and not the sincerity of others, is very problematic," Gardee said.
"It's a slippery slope, when Minister Kenney makes this decision, where does it lead to next?"
The Muslim Canadian Congress, meanwhile, welcomed the new regulation, urging Ottawa to go even further and ban the burka and niqab from all public places in Canada.
Tahir Gora, the group's secretary general, said women who wear the veils are the victims of male chauvinism and brainwashing.
As a result, he said they have marginalized themselves within Canadian society.
"If they want to use this religious thing, they can use it at their religious places, they can use (it) at their homes," said Gora, who noted the burka and niqab are not compulsory in the Muslim faith.
"If you meet a burka-wearing person, of course, you feel sorry for that person."
The location of the announcement was not without symbolism. Quebec has had heated debates in recent years over so-called "reasonable accommodation" — namely, how much should Canada bend to accommodate newcomers.
While in the rest of Canada, such issues are more often raised by conservatives, in Quebec the issue is frequently raised by the left-leaning and nationalist Parti Quebecois.
Kenney was asked by reporters Monday for more specific figures on how often people wear face-coverings to Canadian citizenship ceremonies, but he could not provide an numeric estimate.
He did add that he recently saw a person wearing a veil while swearing a citizenship oath at a ceremony shown on a recent TV news report.
"The point is this is not like once or twice a year," he said. "This is happening with sufficient frequency that I think it really does undermine the integrity of the oath."
Kenney also defended the rule by saying it has nothing to do with religious freedom, and referred to a pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslim women as an example that supports his point.
"When Muslim women do the hajj... they're required not to wear a veil, they're required to show their face," he said.
"So, the notion that this is somehow a religious obligation, I don't accept."
Kenney said the new rule is part of his department's action plan to revamp the citizenship process.
In recent years, Immigration Canada has added several new requirements for potential Canadians, including a new citizenship test, a more detailed study guide and exams to measure ability in Canada's official languages.
Last week, Kenney announced his department is enhancing its efforts to crack down on residency fraud.
The rule also takes effect as the Supreme Court of Canada hears the case of a woman who wants the right to wear a niqab while facing her accused rapists in court.
Opposition parties raised questions Monday as to why the new rule was even necessary.
NDP MP Don Davies said he hasn't heard any concerns about people wearing face-coverings since he became immigration critic around four years ago.
"I think he should slow down a bit and consult with people," Davies said of Kenney.
The Vancouver MP said women who wear a niqab or burka could be identified in a dignified manner in a private room, where they could also take the oath.
Davies believes the minister is using this announcement to divert attention away from damning issues for the Conservative government, such as Defense Minister Peter MacKay's controversial helicopter trip and the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae also wondered why this issue has suddenly appeared on the government's radar.
"If there's a burka epidemic across the country, personally I missed it," Rae said.
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