Muslim women hoping to become Canadian citizens will have to remove their face coverings when taking the citizenship oath, according to Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney. Speaking to reporters, Kenney noted that “the citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly” (source: Globe and Mail). Kenney also mentioned that Citizenship judges have expressed concern that they cannot tell whether veiled women are actually taking the oath or not.
What Are Canadian Values?
An editorial in the Globe and Mail noted the conflict between the supposed Canadian values extolled by Kenney and the actual Canadian values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The oath of citizenship “an oath to the Queen and her successors, and to obey the laws of Canada, and fulfill the duties of being a citizen” should be taken seriously. Does the face need to be bare to demonstrate seriousness? Mr. Kenney says that to be seen, and not to be covered, is in keeping with Canadian values. True, but protection of religious expression, as long as it causes no direct harm to the vulnerable, is also a Canadian value.
Kenney’s complete disregard for freedom of religious expression is particularly interesting given his focus on wooing “the ethnic vote” during the Spring election.
Could Niqab-Wearing Women Be Accomodated?
In Canada, the duty to provide “reasonable accommodation” is enshrined in human rights legislation. According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission:
The duty to accommodate refers to the obligation of an employer, service provider, or union to take steps to eliminate disadvantage to employees, prospective employees or clients resulting from a rule, practice, or physical barrier that has or may have an adverse impact on individuals or groups protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act, or identified as a designated group under the Employment Equity Act.
Sometimes, workplaces have rules, policies, practices and behaviours that apply equally to everyone, but can create barriers based on an irrelevant group characteristic. Canadian human rights legislation recognizes that true equality means respect for people’s different needs. In employment, this means valuing and accommodating differences so that all employees can work to the best of their ability.
The duty to accommodate requires employers to identify and eliminate rules that have a discriminatory impact. Accommodation means changing the rule or practice to incorporate alternative arrangements that eliminate the discriminatory barriers.
The duty to accommodate is most often applied in situations involving persons with physical or mental disability (including previous or current addiction to drugs or alcohol) but it also applies to all other grounds covered by the Canadian Human Rights Act such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and conviction for which a pardon has been granted.
While this quote is taken from a document directed at employers, unions and service providers, it would apply equally to the Canadian government in this instance. The problem, however, is that Kenney doesn’t see any need to accommodate Muslim women who choose to cover their face. According to CBC reporter Kady O’Malley on twitter:
The minister [Kenney] has made it clear he has no interest in finding a ‘reasonable accommodation’ for hopeful citizen-to-be Muslim women. He explicitly rejected the idea of private or female-only ceremonies. As far as Kenney is concerned, it’s public deveiling or nothing. As such, the well-intended suggestions on how this could be done without forcing Muslim women to make that choice are irrelevant.
It appears as though the Conservative government is confusing “multiculturalism” with “assimilation.”
Perpetrating Racism and Intolerance
While Kenney’s opinion and decision certainly have a direct impact on Muslim women who wish to become Canadian citizens, it may also have wider repercussions. On rabble.ca, Nick Day wrote about the the reams of anti-Muslim comments on mainstream news articles on the topic. He concluded:
What Minister Kenney has done with this policy, therefore, is stoked the already-glowing fires of a growing and violent racism in Canada. He has encouraged all Canadians to antagonize Canadians who are Muslim. And the proof is in the comment section on this article, 1200-strong and growing, all filled with vitriolic hatred for those who are perceived as “different” or “not truly Canadian.”
Reaction to Kenney’s decision and remarks has been mixed in the Muslim community. Some say it would violate their beliefs to uncover their face, whereas others say there is always a way to get around the requirement in legal or security situations. It is disappointing, however, that Kenney simply closed the door rather than indicating interest in a dialogue or a solution.
Image credit: Alfred Weidinger on flickr