The niqab – a symbol for the fear gripping Canada

The Harper government has tried to deny her citizenship by launching successive court challenges

Canada is in a political fuss about a Muslim woman who insists on wearing a niqab during her swearing of allegiance ceremony to become a citizen of Canada.

The Harper government has tried to deny her citizenship by launching successive court challenges — it keeps losing. The courts have invariably ruled that the Charter gives a woman the option to wear a niqab even during such an occasion — she reveals her face privately before the ceremony so she is properly identified.

The specific “she” is Zunera Ishaq, 29, the mother of four boys and a 2008 immigrant from Pakistan who is working her way toward teacher certification. She made the decision to wear the niqab when she was 15 years old, against the advice of her family — in an interview on CBC’s The Current (Oct. 11/15), she describes her father as a liberal Muslim science professor. Even her husband, she says, has tried to dissuade her from wearing a niqab. It is, for her, entirely a personal choice.

Andrew Coyne, a political columnist for The National Post (Oct. 1/15), explores this issue with illuminating insight. The number of women who have been denied citizenship since 2011 for refusing to remove their niqab has been exactly two. This is not a national crisis. “Absent some identifiable harm,” writes Coyne, “there is no basis in Canadian law to ban the niqab.” As for these women, adds Coyne, “Far from weak and submissive, they give every sign of being obstreperously independent, rock-ribbed individualists willing to assert their rights even in the face of a hostile majority. …In their ornery unwillingness to bend to others’ sensitivities, in their insistence on going their own way on a matter of principle, those women are in the finest Canadian tradition of hell-raising.”

The only reason the niqab became a nationally divisive issue is because the Harper government made it one, said Thomas Mulcair, who called it “a weapon of mass distraction”.

But it fits a pattern, part of the intolerance that has been building in Canada during the last decade. Don’t trust foreigners, refugees, scientists, civil servants, charity groups or environmentalists. Any of them could be engaged in nefarious acts undermining government. It’s part of the erosion of co-operation and trust that is fracturing and polarizing this country.

The resulting fear is spreading. We now worry obsessively about the economy, jobs, corporations, trade agreements, retirement funds, the very rich, the very poor, food banks, species extinction, extreme weather, the cost of education, daycare, pharmaceuticals and even taxes — what we pay to alleviate these worries.

The sense conveyed is of a country fragmenting into suspicious individuals and conflicting factions — tearing itself apart.

The prime minister won’t talk to the premiers so national policies aren’t implemented. We can’t trust environmental assessment reviews, the health care system, pension plans, fair voting, senators, the PMO or even the integrity of Parliament itself. Truth has become secondary to political expedience. The mail is no longer reliably delivered. Even casting a ballot has become inexplicably difficult.

Lose transparency and the result is rampant suspicion.

This is Canada these days. It’s a mess. And the niqab fuss is a symbol of why.