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October 7, 2015

BERTON: Niqab debate is shameful

Stop playing politics and do the right thing.

Unlike most born-and-bred Canadians, I have had the opportunity to attend a Canadian citizenship ceremony.

It is not a bureaucratic event, where newcomers must show identification or prove their bona fides. Instead, they take part in discussions, led by volunteers like me, about such things as the experience of coming to Canada, and their hopes for the future.

Such ceremonies are not held in courthouses or administrative buildings — the one I attended was at the Art Gallery of Hamilton — and all the official documentation work and security checks, which require candidates to show their faces, are completed long beforehand. They are there to pick up a certificate, not a passport.

So it is a black mark on our nation indeed that the federal Conservatives are making a fuss — and an election issue — by trying to ban the niqab, or veil, at such ceremonies, ceremonies designed for them, not us.

Canadian courts have twice struck down regulations introduced by the Conservative government to enforce a niqab ban, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't seem to care; he is listening to the polls, which show Canadians support the niqab ban, and putting politics ahead of integrity.

Many Canadians who support the ban likely have not thought it through. This is inexcusable, but understandable.

The prime minister, on the other hand, has considered all of this. Harper is a smart man and he knows right from wrong, but he is ignoring that for the sake of votes. It is the kind of xenophobic opportunism exhibited by Donald Trump in the United States.

This isn't called leading; it's called following. It's what politicians did in earlier dark periods of Canadian history when prejudice, bigotry and ignorance reared their ugly heads during debates about immigration, periods that embarrass us still, periods through which we wished politicians had guided us with more compassion, vision and understanding.

I do not much like the niqab, nor what I think it may stand for in a broad way, but I do not much like piercings or tattoos either. My teacher did not like the way my long hair covered my eyes in high school. My grandmother probably did not much like the length of my mother's skirts.

Canada's First Nations were amused — and then possibly alarmed — by the ridiculous getups worn for religious or cultural reasons by Canada's early French and English explorers. But they didn't insist they change into something more comfortable; they simply assumed the newcomers would.

Yes, the French and English looked askance at the customs and clothing of the Italians or the Chinese. Are we not now past that? Have Canadians not evolved yet to a place where we can live up to our reputation as welcoming and open hosts?

Whether the niqab is a matter of faith or a matter of culture is irrelevant. It is a choice, and it is not a big deal for us to respect the one or two women among thousands upon thousands each year who wish to exercise that choice.

Yes, newcomers should accommodate their hosts — but shouldn't hosts take the first step, and accommodate their guests, especially given that the courts have already reminded us — and undoubtedly will remind us again — of what is right? This debate is not worthy of our time, and it is shameful that we have allowed it to become part of an election campaign debate.

Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or .

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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