Niqab and the NDP: The small issue with huge implications
Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Patrick Doyle / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Friday, September 25, 2015 9:21PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 25, 2015 9:42PM EDT
For a concern that has an impact on an incredibly small section of the population, the niqab sure is getting a lot of attention this week. And based on tweets sent my way, it seems many people are asking: why?
The answer to that question is much longer than 140 characters. And it has enormous political implications for NDP leader Tom Mulcair.
The veil sparked the most interesting exchanges during the French debate, it has been the subject of extensive polling (even by the Prime Minister's Office), and it was the centre of a key speech by Tom Mulcair on Wednesday.
For the week I spent covering the NDP leader, he received at least one question a day on his niqab position. Mulcair waffled on the issue in the days following the Federal Court of Appeal's decision to strike down the ban on face coverings during the symbolic portion of a Canadian citizenship oath. And the whiff of a federal party leader waffling led to more questions from reporters and the public. By mid-week, the party decided to announce a position (well, kind of....more on that in a moment).
We were given a heads up on Wednesday morning that Mulcair would have something significant to say about the niqab. On the bus, you could sense the anxiety of staffers. Reporters would only be given copies of his speech 5 minutes before he started, and media handlers were strict about it. This was not going to be leaked in advance, Mulcair wanted context, in his own words, as he revealed his position.
But when reporters saw the text, and when Mulcair finally spoke, his position was still unclear.
“I am in agreement with the existing rule under which anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before swearing the oath,” he said.
It took further explanation from the NDP to decipher exactly what Mulcair meant, as he evasively stated his pro-veil-during-citizenship-ceremony stance.
NDP staffers had good reason to be nervous. Quebec is home to the party's base, and it is the place where the orange crush exploded in 2011. If Tom Mulcair is going to have a shot at winning this election, he MUST hold on to his support in the province.
And in Quebec, there is overwhelming support for a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies. A poll commissioned by the federal government back in March but only released Thursday, found 82 per cent of people surveyed strongly or somewhat strongly favour that women wearing the niqab must reveal their face during their citizenship ceremony.
The province has wrestled with this issue before; most recently during the public charter of values debate. Provincial officials tried to ban some religious symbols, but eventually failed.
Party sources say Mulcair is pleased with how his announcement has gone over. But it will take a few days to see if his position has any impact on the polls. Mulcair is standing on the opposite side of popular public opinion in Quebec, and it very well could alienate his base.
That does not seem to trouble Mulcair, who today doubled down on his stance, and is being far more clear about it. Saying his decision is based on principle, and the rights of individuals must be protected. He also made a statement, that could be seen as curious, especially during an election campaign.
When asked if he might regret being on the wrong side of public opinion, if it ultimately prevented him from becoming prime minister, he said “I’ve taken positions in my life that weren’t immediately appreciated -- I’m willing to live with that." Mulcair may be on the opposite side of popular opinion, but he appears to believe he is on the right side of history. But if the NDP leader expects the public to warm to his position, in time for the federal election, it’s a big risk.
A risk that could end up chipping away at the support he desperately needs, from the province that established his party.