Liberals end attempt to ban niqabs from citizenship ceremonies started by Harper government

The governing Liberals have withdrawn a legal effort by the previous Conservative government to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.

Under Stephen Harper, the previous government had hoped to persuade the Supreme Court of  to hear its case for striking down lower court rulings that allowed women to wear the niqab – a face covering used by some Muslim women – at citizenship ceremonies.

The announcement not to pursue the legal action was made Monday by Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould – bringing an end to one of the strongest political flashpoints of the recent election campaign.

“In all of our policy as a government, we will ensure that we respect the values that make us Canadians – those of diversity, inclusion and respect for those fundamental values,” she told journalists in Ottawa.

During the election, the Conservatives decided to fight a Federal Court of Appeal ruling. That ruling was the second time the government had been told by the courts that its ban on at citizenship ceremonies was illegal.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick DoyleTHE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick DoyleZunera Ishaq went to court to fight the ban on wearing niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.

As the political debate over the niqab heated up on the hustings, then-citizenship and immigration minister Chris Alexander announced the government would seek leave to appeal – all the way to the Supreme Court – in an effort to forbid women wearing the niqab when they publicly take their citizenship oath.

Both the Liberals and New Democrats opposed the ban, and with Justin Trudeau’s victory on Oct. 19, it was virtually certain the new Liberal government would drop the Conservatives’ legal appeal.

The government had 60 days from the day of the Federal Court of Appeal judgment to file all of its written materials for a leave to appeal. With that deadline now expired, Wilson-Raybould announced the government has abandoned the case.

The case centred on a lawsuit by Zunera Ishaq, a devout Muslim woman who moved from Pakistan to Ontario in 2008.

Two years ago, she agreed to remove her niqab for a federal official at her citizenship written test. But she refused to do so at the formal oath ceremony, as required under rules instituted by the Conservative government in 2011.

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In February, Federal Court judge Keith Boswell ruled in her favour, concluding that the federal policy violates the Citizenship Act. That law requires citizenship judges to allow the greatest possible religious freedom when they administer the oath.

During the campaign, in September, the Federal Court of Appeal unanimously supported that decision by Boswell.

Wilson-Raybould said she had a conversation Monday with Ishaq and was pleased to personally tell her of the government’s decision to “discontinue” the leave to appeal.

“We live in a country that’s based on shared values, that recognizes that we are stronger because of our diversity and not in spite of it,” the minister told journalists.

If the Conservatives had been re-elected and pursued their leave to appeal to the top court, there was no guarantee the court would hear it. In fact, many experts felt the odds were strong it would be rejected, given that the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision was unanimous.

Ottawa Citizen

About Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News