03.27.2010 08:30 PM

Covering up

Possible lawbreaker.

BR Ignatieff Veil
The Canadian Press
Mar 27, 2010 3:13

MONTREAL – Michael Ignatieff is weighing in on the Muslim face-covering debate that’s raging in Quebec.

The federal Liberal leader says he supports controversial legislation that would force veiled women in Quebec to uncover their faces when receiving or delivering public services.

Ignatieff says the bill represents a “good Canadian balance” between religious freedom and equal treatment.

Some Muslim groups and other commentators have harshly denounced the bill, branding it as intolerant.

Ignatieff, however, says it’s “ridiculous” to say that Quebec is more intolerant than other parts of the country.

He says all modern societies are grappling with how to reasonably accommodate cultural and religious differences.


I’m not “grappling” with this one, personally. I don’t agree, at all, with the position that my party – or the governing party – have taken, here.  That likely places me in a small minority, but I’m okay with that.

It’s fair to say, however, that I’m also not overly exercised about what Quebec proposes to do:  it’s a poorly-drafted law, one that will face (so to speak) an inevitable constitutional challenge. I just cannot foresee such a law surviving a Section Two Charter review – nor it being regarded as particularly reasonable, under a Section One check.

On the other hand – if I am wrong, and I’m often wrong – and the law eludes a Charter challenge, prepare yourself for the inevitable: every kook and bigot with some spare time on his hands may commence litigation against the Sikh’s turban and beard, the Jew’s kippah and the Hasidic Jew’s clothing,  the Hindu’s tilak facial markings, the styles favoured by traditional Mennonites and the Amish, or perhaps even the ostentatious display of a nun’s habit.  I mean, why not, right?  Any one of those things may serve to obscure a person’s identity in some way. Fair’s fair.

There may indeed be occasions when the provision of certain government services reasonably require that we see a person’s face – checking a passport, crossing a border, perhaps even voting when a person’s bona fides can’t otherwise be confirmed.  But, say, popping by a government office to pay a parking ticket?  Will the new law prohibit that, too?

I think we’re in rather dangerous territory, here, but I’m interested in your thoughts, as always.


  1. matt says:

    Really happy to hear you take this position. I could not agree more. Was disappointed with Charest (but not surprised), and shocked by each of Ignatieff and Harper. These stances are diametrically opposite to what I consider the best part of Canada. I will not vote for someone with this stance.

  2. Scott Tribe says:

    Question: If the Supreme Court throws this out, would it be able to be potentially sideswiped with the Notwithstanding Clause, if the government(s) decided to go that route?

  3. EFL says:

    As I’ve said, in French, I agree with you & Silver & Gazette & Fo Niemi etc., in principle. But as I’ve also said, the political dynamic here is so dangerous that I think this was well-done by Charest. He’s trying to take the poison out of the issue by taking a stand against most viscerally upsetting element, using potentially constitutional considerations of security, ID, etc., such that I think the law will be judged a justifiable and “reasonable limit in a free and democratic society”. By doing this now, and mostly adhering to B-T report, with exception of their desire of (unconstitutional) restriction of “ostentatious” religious insignia for those fulfilling functions in the judicial branch, which was also supported by Bloc, he has chosen ground he can win on, and get support from a large number of people from across the political spectrum.

    Don’t fool yourself, those who want to go further and ban all insignia, everywhere, à la française, are extremely potent, as they represent an alliance between (nationalist) elites and bigots who are able to speak to the most fearful and worst instincts of the population. We’ve seen the damage such alliances of elites and lumpenproletariat can do, in the past. And as every poll shows, with elites giving moral-intellectual blessing to more or less quiet bigotry, the “plain folks” feel justified in the most extreme views, and are expressing the most extreme goals.

    So I think Charest is doing the right thing, now, on ground he can win, to forestall worse later. This must be killed off before the next provincial election, or we’re going to see one of the ugliest elections and aftermaths in Canadian history.

    Just something to keep in mind, and as someone who has worked in practical politics, something you appreciate, if disagree with, standing on your principles.

    • matt says:

      Part of me understands, and part of me wonders if your first name is Neville. I disagree on this surviving the Oakes test based on a smell test, and the fact that workable procedures to deal with security/ID concerns and the niqab exist right now, absent this law. It will be a s. 33. And that is an act that does not forestall worse to come – it legitimizes it.

  4. VS says:

    SO happy to hear you say this. Hate this and am severely disappointed in Ignatieff here.

    It means a lot when people can take a respectful step back from their party and further legitimizes anything else you support/tell others to support. Kudos!

  5. ezo says:

    ‘Atta boy, Warren. I’m happy you’re on side. Let’s not ban the niqab, that just wins cheap political points – lets take the liberal way and seek women’s empowerment – now and in the long-term. That’s how we should have approached this.

  6. Derek Lipman says:

    You WK, are an eclectic man. Where else in the blogosphere can we find a post on Courtney Love and “Skinny Little Bitch” followed by a frank and cogent piece on a potentially explosive political issue? It’s a fun place to hang out.

    I would take it further than you, and argue that the government and Iggy’s position is draconian. The government has no business ordering these women to take off their veils. By taking this stand, the government (and the majority of Liberals) are showing their inherent discomfort with the religious practice of wearing a veil, or pandering to those who harbour such opinions. Now, the islamophobes, xenophobes, and just plain paranoid will probably take issue with it. It should not be about “accomodating” cultural and religious differences; rather, we should be embracing this diversity.

    As Canadians, we should be charting a different course than other countries. We need to show to the world our progressivism, our inclusiveness, and our acceptance of all people,

  7. Elizabeth says:

    It’s too confusing. I keep going back and forth, with all the pros and cons, and all the different ways veils are worn and used, and the mythical significance of veils, as well as oppression of women — (I bought the very first Ms magazine); but then overt sexuality for 10 year olds, and exposure has become a sort of oppression in its own . . so I think I’ll just go to bed and try again tomorrow.

    • Dave says:

      Personally, I think the decision to veil or not to veil should be up to the individual involved, not me, and definitely not the government. I oppose banning the veil just as I oppose making it mandatory. Isn’t it oppressing women to take away that choice either way?

  8. bigcitylib says:

    If you’ve read Selley, he says the law contains a number of fudges wherein most of th current “accomodations” will remain in place. He thinks this is Charest’s method of defusing the issue, while appearing to give ground.


    • Omar says:

      I agree. Charest is posturing, and it is an attempt to prevent the official opposition, Patry Quebecois, from exploiting the issue. Party Quebecois is proposing a more radical position, “banning all religious symbols from public …

  9. Sandra says:

    I see that the comments so far are from the perspective of “men”. Nuns didn’t cover their faces and most nuns now where street clothes.

    I watched a very smart and articulate Muslim woman from the Congress of Muslims… say that the veil to cover the face IS NOT a Muslim religious requirement. Those that do in most cases do because of the dominance of men in the far extremes of the faith.

    • matt says:

      The Quebec government should not be the arbiter what is and is not a bona fide religious practice. So said the Supreme Court of Canada in the Amselem case.

      • John says:

        So said the *majority* of the Supreme Court of Canada in Amselem. It was a controversial decision then, and it remains a controversial decision today.

  10. Robbie says:

    Warren: Keep the crucifix ban the veil? You are correct that this is “rather dangerous territory.” This ban is about the subjugation of religious freedom of minorities to the rights of a secular state for the sake of political convienence. The niqab ban is nothing more than bigotry veiled under the guise of gender equality. It is easy to pick on a few, to pander to a majority of voters who are ill informed, than to dig deep and build bridges of understanding. This hastily derived public policy has much broader implications for other religions and their particular expression of faith in the future of Quebec than most realize. It serves as a dangerous precedent for state intervention into practices of faith that governing parties may not want to understand or agree with. Sadly, it will lead to more intolerance, not less. I may not agree with the tenets of Islam but I will certainly do my best to respect that its adherents have the right to peaceful non-violent expressions of their faith. Overall, its a very disturbing law. What is more disturbing, though, is that the leaders of two major federal parties fell in line so quickly with this short sighted, reactionary thinking.

  11. James Bow says:

    For what it’s worth, Warren, I agree with you. Forcing someone not to wear something is as bad as forcing someone to wear that same something. It’s shameful that the Charest government and their supporters don’t get that.

  12. JStanton says:

    I don’t buy it. We are being played by extremists who do not represent Islam, regardless of their claims, and, as a society, we have fallen to the bottom of the “reasonable accommodation” slippery slope. Significantly, the tenets of Islam do not require that a women’s face be covered. That is a personal choice, or an artifact of oppression by family or sectarianism. This is therefore NOT a religious issue, but a cultural one, and we should be addressing it as such.

    If, as a society, we decide that, a) face covering (the obscuring of identity) enriches our communities, and b) that the formal processes of the state apparatus (on which our individual and collective well-being rely) can occur just as efficiently when peoples’ faces are covered, then this practice is just fine. But it’s a pretty counter intuitive premise.

    A major reason for the Liberal Party’s fall from grace is the apparent refusal to engage in critical thinking about issues such as this, for fear of offense. That’s not what we need. We need fearless debate about what CANADA needs, and fearless debaters who will defend the collective good.

    Conservatives use the “last refuge of the scoundrel” tactic by conflating “agin the war” with “agin the troops”. L(l)iberals need to be careful about doing the same thing. Being against the obscuring of identity for cultural reasons is NOT the same as racism, or religious intolerance. Let’s have the guts to frame this issue correctly and fairly.

  13. Dr.Dawg says:

    The young woman who got this controversy started–a pharmacist and would-be student of French–didn’t sound like a submissive, obedient woman at all. In fact, I’ve suggested that this might be the real problem–another uppity woman demanding to dress as she pleases. So threatening was this to established order that the whole matter was bumped up to the ministerial level in a matter of days.

    Under the Taliban, a woman could only go outside if she wore a concealing garment. In Quebec, if this appalling h

  14. Dr.Dawg says:

    Sorry, Warren, my code didn’t work. Here’s the message again:

    The young woman who got this controversy started?a pharmacist and would-be student of French?didn?t sound like a submissive, obedient woman at all. In fact, I?ve suggested that this might be the real problem?another uppity woman demanding to dress as she pleases. So threatening was this to established order that the whole matter was bumped up to the ministerial level in a matter of days.

    Under the Taliban, a woman could only go outside if she wore a concealing garment. In Quebec, if this appalling h

  15. Bocanut says:

    Finally Ignatieff shows some common sense and says something that resonates with Canadians.
    Wearing a full facial cover up in public is not the Canadian way.

  16. Mulletaur says:

    Suddenly, I don’t feel so lonely. Thanks, Warren.

  17. James Curran says:

    At a conference that Canadians are talking about pension reform, healthcare, green energy and the likes….reeallllly important stuff….we get this as the biggest headline. That’s fabulous. Just fabulous.

  18. Jay says:

    Will this cover beards worn by men? I mean, really, some guys you just cannot see their faces with all that hair. This is a female empowerment issue. When did liberals get in the business of banning clothing. Is the miniskirt next?

  19. Mark says:

    Anything to keep women in their place right liberals? You guys sicken me. Sure let’s bag up our women in garbage bags so we can’t see their faces. Makes them feel like our property all the more. How about you guys try walking around in the middle of summer in one of these things and then tell me if they are oppressive or not. What’s next? Keeping them chained to a stove?

  20. Derek Richards says:

    Many Liberal muslim women do not wear the Burka so that it covers the face. At an airport or voting station you must identify yourself by showing your face. If the grocery clerk needs to see your face to accept your card she should be permitted. Does it take a law to counter cultural behaviour? Would the women be covering themselves if given the choice? Mostly, I don’t believe so. Should personal belief take precedent over the security of life and commerce?

  21. lisa says:

    Sorry, Warren, I don’t agree with you on this one.
    As a previous poster said – covering a woman’s face is NOT a Muslim religious requirement (unless you’re Taliban).
    Why are we fighting in Afghanistan again!?

    • matt says:

      My point exactly. We’re fighting to free women from the obligation to dress the way the state tells them to based on the state’s perception of what bona fide religious beliefs are.

  22. Jay says:

    Mark. No need to be so inflammatory. Clothing bans are not the way to deal with this. Empowering women to remove it or refuse to wear it is the way to go. You seem to want to take the Puritan approach. You cannot dictate what people wear or don’t wear. I though we settled that over a hundred years ago. This entire issue from the conservative standpoint is about Islam, not women. The veil is just an easy target.

    Fully secularize Canada and ban all outright displays of religion is the only route once you start attacking symbols of one group. It’s what’s far to everyone or actually focus on the issues surrounding how women are treated on Islam not what they wear.

  23. Eugene Parks says:

    No matter what I wear, my wife can spot and postively identify me … from three miles away… whether she sees my face or not… even when wearing winter gear and all covered up… and would be perfectly willing to identify me to any government authority that cares to know.

  24. auntie-em-m says:

    I taught French to adults for years. I would not have been comfortable or effective teaching a veiled student.
    Guiding and shaping pronunciation requires seeing lips move and hearing sounds distinctly.

    Smiling and greeting strangers also requires getting a smiling and intelligible response.
    I see this as a practical and neccessary accommodation.

  25. Jon Evan says:

    I think that unrestrained multiculturalism existing in a vacuum leads eventually to racial apartheid and a nation of ethnic communities segregated into mutually exclusive ghettos each doing their own thing as they did in the foreign places from whence they came. This is not a nation. So I believe in limits which could define Canada and create an identity that should connect us.

    We are finally talking about what is the Canadian Way or the “good Canadian balance” as MI puts it. My grandparents came from across the pond, but I am not them. I am proud of my ethnic background but it does not define me. I am Canadian and me and my children want to know what that means. Quebec has started for itself; we need to do it for all of Canada.

  26. Safari Bill says:

    So exactly when did intolerance become so fashionable? Is the Levant disease spreading across the country now? What happened to Canada welcoming minorities and protecting them from hateful speech? I just returned from African where the average citizen is embracing rights (and outlawing hate speech) yet here in Canada we take such protections for granted. I just don’t get it…

  27. Riff says:

    Warren, your heart is in the right place, but your brain is in overdrive. I suggest that you get down in the trenches and deal with the issue ‘ face to face’ so-to-speak.

    Body language, especially facial expressions, play a huge and very important role in human communications. Trust is at the heart of personal communications and trust cannot be established until one is willing to expose one’s face to another person out of respect and courtesy.

    Their is nothing in Islamic theology that mandates the wearing of a total face covering, including in many cases the eyes.

    This total covering has been imposed by extremist Muslims all over the world to demonstrate their ability to control Muslims, women and men.

    This form of oppression by extremist Muslims must be resolved eventually within the Muslim communities world wide. Alas, this will not happen for several decades.

    In host states where Muslims are a minority it only seems reasonable to many host communities to expects a degree of reasonable accommodation, a process that must run both ways.

    There will be extremist Muslims who will push their hard line and refuse to accommodate members of their host society.

    It is important for the Charest government to fashion legislation that is Charter proof, it must stand the test of section 1 which is very narrowly construed.

    If Charest’s legislation does not meet the test then it will rightly be challenged in the courts and eventually over turned. The Charest government will not invoke the notwithstanding clause, s. 23, of the Charter.

    The best advice to Canadians at this juncture is to remain rational and calm.

  28. Omar says:

    To Lisa and others who assert that “covering a woman’s face is NOT a Muslim religious requirement”. Please do a Google search. It is a shame that in the age of the internet you make a false assertion. First, Covering the face is the right of the person who practices it and not the right of who opposes it. As for the Islamic point of view on the subject, there are different opinions on the question of face covering, one which says, it is obligatory, and the other, it is recommended. The other position which is practiced by a large number of Muslims is that it is allowed to uncover the face.

    As for why “Why are we fighting in Afghanistan again!?”. I would ask, we should start fighting in Quebec? As Quebec is preventing the women from Education. As for the real reason why we are in Afghanistan, did you consider OIL pipe line that can be routed through Afghanistan to exploit the huge oil reserve of Central Asia. If Canada and the West in general were serious about helping Women, there are hundreds of millions of them (mostly in the third world) who can be saved from perishing as a result hunger and disease. For most of these people, Education would be a luxury, and would be welcomed with open arms. And this can be achieved without the sacrifice of the lives of Canadian Men and Women, not the least the Money that can be diverted.

    • lisa says:

      Please enlighten me. Why does a Muslim need to cover her face and for what purpose?

      • Omar says:

        I was very clear on the issue, “Covering the face is the right of the person who practices it and not the right of who opposes”. I am speaking in the context of the right to choose for those who choose to cover their face. If you need further enlightenment, the web is full of information covering all points of view on the subject. It is your right to choose any point of view… I would (hesitantly) recommend the following link (if allowed) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw6XSg8HqPw because it presents the choices made by three Muslim women from Canada – the video is a CBC production posted on youtube.

  29. marc says:

    I agree with you that this is a very slippery slope. But, I can’t say that I’m sorry that Quebec went this way. Having not read the exact wording of the bill, but if this has to do with identification for government services, like getting a health card, then I am for it.

  30. Rotterdam says:

    Allowing Niqhab or Burka is cultural tolerance that goes too far.
    Liberals, no all Canadians, would be well advised think, just think of the woman who is culturally forced into this.
    It is no secret that countries that subject woman with this attire have huge human rights issues.
    It sends a message, you are welcome in our country, but we have values you must extend to your wife.

    • Ray says:

      We have laws that prohibit uncovering some parts of the body. I don’t see why we could not similarly have laws that prohibit covering some others.

  31. d. andy says:

    Hi Warren, I’m like some who’ve already posted here who agree with you that it’s unseemly politics; however given what we’ve gone through over the past five years or so (there was the QC court case on kids wearing the kirpan to school, plus the ON sharia law mess) the trend appears to be that these cultural cleavage-based cases need to be decided by some definitive action, be it legislation or litigation, because case-by-case low level mediation doesn’t cut it. I don’t agree this will open a Pandora’s box of litigation on religious/cultural symbols and dress; the case of the Sikh RCMP officer did that, what, 25 years ago? It’s a different slant on an unpleasant debate, with all the cheap populism that goes with that, but it’s not new.

    So Charest, his cultural affairs minister Yolande James et al are taking a risk. If it goes sour, well, they deserve to pay a political price. But once in a blue moon, a case like this pops up and our Court system give us something genuinely useful to work with (the Calder decision on Aboriginal title, the aforementioned Sikh RCMP officer), and if that happens here Charest will go down in history as the guy who helped trigger an important change in the evolution of our society.

  32. Luke says:

    To look at the legal ramifications is important. But the stated aim of the law, to ensure correct identification, really can’t be argued with.

    On election day if someone comes in and says their name and hands the Poll Clerk a piece of ID, the poll clerk has no idea if it’s the same person. Think of it in another context, what if a man in a balaclava came in and asked to vote. Can we identify him? No. Is a balaclava the same as a muslim face covering, perhaps not in religious terms, but it is for all practical purposes in this example.

    Arguments can be made about Charter rights and freedom of religion, but in the end this must be seen as a reasonable limit on religious freedom. Not because it is or isn’t a tenet of Islam, but simply because wearing a face covering for religious or non-religious reasons prevents positive identification. And sometimes we simply need to be sure ‘we have the right man/woman’— voting, health services etc.

    • Aurelia says:

      Ridiculous, no one ever asked for picture ID at a poll for 100 years and we have never had any voting fraud, EVER. We have no need for that, but even if we did, there are always female employees at all polls and it’s no big deal to ID to them.

  33. I don’t agree with this either — I think these women must be allowed sufficient time to integrate:

  34. Aurelia says:

    Actually, this has nothing to do with religion at all.

    The government does not have the right to tell me how to live my life in a free and democratic society if I am not hurting anyone else. Their right to make laws ends at the tip of my nose and this or any other garment I wear affects absolutely NO ONE.

    Right now, as we speak, we already have procedures for dealing with security checks and government IDs and teaching and medical care. Women wearing the niqab already show their faces to other women on staff where ever they are. Frankly, I was often uncomfortable with male security guards at customs and I’m very glad we have more women working there now. If I, a middle class white woman don’t want to be patted down by a man, everyone respects that. Why can’t a brown muslim woman ask for that?

    This is all a smokescreen for bigotry.

    And as for who else might be affected? Well, what happens when we start decreeing clothing types by race and gender? Maybe groups who are currently under attack everyday in our society?

    Transgendered people, cross-dressers, and intersex people are already attacked. Women who want to breastfeed in public, either with or without covering up are constantly vilified. Fat people, the elderly, the autistic, the mentally ill—all of them have been victimized by the public and police for not wearing acceptable clothing and not making eye contact with people.

    You think you can’t be next? Oh trust me, anyone can.

  35. Valentin Erikson says:

    Whatever your view is, this proposed law to ban women from wearing face-covering veils on government premises is not a “good Canadian balance” between religious freedom and equal treatment.

    Will hospitals deny people wearing face-covering veils health care? If they do, this legislation will probably be considered a breach of human rights.
    Will some women have to choose between their education and their faith? How will they be able to integrate into our society without learning English and French? This law will probably contribute to ghettoization of muslim women, not to their integration.

    We shouldn’t follow France into secular radicalism, because we’ll make secularism our state religion.

  36. matt says:

    Well said.

    • matt says:

      Shoot. I meant “well said” to Aurelia, immediately above Valentin’s comment. Valentin, I agree on principle with you. I don’t think we’ll contribute to ghettoization, we’ll just become a lesser version of what we could have been.

  37. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t like the niqab, because it discriminates against women. Men don’t wear them.
    It’s all very well for an adult woman to wear the niqab, if she really wants to – but what gets me is when a 13 or 14 year old girl now has to cover her face, I’m assuming that’s about the age. And for what reason? Because you’re female. So what is so awful about me being female that I have to cover my face? You’re sexually attractive to men, who apparently can’t control themselves. Yes, there are dangers, but women can learn self-defense.

    It’s quite a way to end a girl’s childhood, right then and there. I’m all for extending childhood – girls should be running around until they’re 18 at least, playing soccer, riding ponies, fooling around on the beach, surfing, wandering around in the evenings with their friends, wearing shorts and halter tops – and the onus should not be on them to cover up because they’re female. I find this so disturbing – that whatever society places the burden on women, and on young girls for their sexuality. I’m afraid I am very pro equality of the genders. If women have to cover their faces, then men can do it too. See how that works. It also comes across as somewhat arrogant, as if the rest of us are somehow immoral for walking around with faces uncovered.

    Some Muslim women have said that they see makeup as a sort of veil, which is interesting, and has truth to it.
    I wouldn’t let my daughter wear makeup until she was about 17/18, because, as I told her – ‘I want you to get to know your own face without makeup when you’re growing up – and your friends should see you for who you are, without a load of makeup on.’ Makeup can be sort of addicting in that way, people get so that they can’t stand seeing themselves without it, or refuse to go anywhere without it. So we later went through the makeup phase, but now she’ll go makeup free most of the time.

    All that aside, it seems to me that it could be a security risk; you don’t know who this is, our society operates on knowing who we’re talking to, and facial recognition. Faces are important. We read each others’ expressions, and we relate to others through our faces. We smile, frown, laugh, show stress — it’s like cutting off one of the senses to cover the face like that. “Government services”, whatever that means – yes, I think it should be law that faces have to be uncovered to receive government services, like getting your drivers’ license, passport, married, being in school, and so on. Kids in school are not allowed to wear hats; so this is not new – this is not discrimination, this is custom, and for a good reason. They’re also not allowed to wear jackets in school, or hoods up on hoodies. One teacher told me that the term is “jacketing”, and it’s highly discouraged, it’s a sign of depression, and they’re always on the watch for suicide possibilities. So schools do want to see what’s going on – of course they do!

    And – if a girl doesn’t want to follow her parents’ custom and wear a niqab – she should not have to.

    Hutterites tried to get out of having photos taken for drivers licenses, and the answer was no. I think it should be the same here. It shouldn’t have to go the route of being legal or illegal, but then she should have the courtesy to aquiesce to the customs of the country. I don’t see why not — courtesy goes both ways.

    Sorry if this sounds disjointed, on my way out. The nun’s habit, btw, does not compare, except that it too is a female outfit. The nun’s face is not covered; I’ve never met a nun who did cover up completely, so I don’t think it’s relevant.

    • Valentin Erikson says:

      It does not matter whether you like it or not. Personally, I don’t like it either.
      However, denying people wearing face-covering veils healthcare violates our laws.

      It is interesting to note that a couple of days ago France’s highest administrative body has concluded. that a total ban on wearing burkas in public could be illegal and violate human rights.

      Read more here: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/03/30/france-council-veil-ban.html

  38. Ray says:

    We have laws that prohibit uncovering some parts of the body. I don’t see why we could not similarly have laws that prohibit covering some others.

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