What’s really behind niqab poll results?

In a federal survey, a surprising number of respondents cited ‘identification’ as the main reason for supporting the ban

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, September 15, 2015. (PATRICK DOYLE/CP)

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, September 15, 2015. (PATRICK DOYLE/CP)

The government’s desire to have the niqab banned during the swearing of the oath at citizenship ceremonies has been found by pollsters to have widespread support among the public, support that the government is not shy about noting. But what if a substantial amount of that support is driven by a mistaken belief about why that ban was implemented?

I wrote last week that public opinion about the niqab should not determine whether the wearing of the garment is banned, by law, during the swearing of the citizenship oath. But public opinion is still, of course, interesting to consider. Earlier this week, I wondered aloud how many of those who supported a ban did so because of a concern about confirming the identity of those who swore the oath—a concern that is actually irrelevant to the ban. A fellow member of the press gallery suggested a possible answer—taken from a survey commissioned by the government. (A Forum poll released this week showed 64 per cent opposed allowing the niqab during the oath.)

The survey was complemented by a series of focus groups in six cities across the country. In the summary submitted to the Privy Council Office, Leger—the firm that conducted the survey and focus groups—reported that participants “mostly sided with the government.”

But the explanation of why respondents felt as they did is worth noting (emphasis mine): “Reasons for their preferences were varied, however. The most common reason cited was security. Participants felt that those who attended such ceremonies needed to be clearly identifiable and did not think it made sense that someone should be able to hide [her] face. Other participants felt that this was, first and foremost, a value-based issue. To them, this was about new immigrants embracing Canadian values when being welcomed as new citizens. Removing their niqabs or burkas was the normal thing to do in Canada and, therefore, the Canadian government was right in issuing this direction about showing their faces.”

A table in the survey includes reasons for both supporting and opposing the ban, but 28 per cent of those respondents cited “for identification purposes” as the “main reason” for their position on the ban. Another six per cent cited “security reasons/concerns.”

    So some significant percentage of the public would seem to believe that concerns about confirming identity and security are relevant to the question of whether the niqab should be permitted during the swearing of the citizenship oath. But here’s the thing: The ban was not implemented for the purposes of confirming identity or protecting security.

    The only practical consideration cited at the time—see here, here and here—was a desire to ensure that prospective citizens were actually saying the oath. The operational bulletin to government officials in December 2011 confirmed as much: “It is the responsibility of the presiding official and the clerk of the ceremony to ensure that all candidates are seen taking the Oath of Citizenship. In some circumstances, it is difficult to ascertain whether candidates are taking the oath, because they are wearing a full or partial face covering.”

    That is a flimsy basis for the ban—ensuring something is said is not a question of sight, but hearing, and simply standing within earshot of someone wearing a niqab should be enough to confirm that the oath is said—but it was the only tangible reason for asking women to unveil.

    As the Toronto Star reported two days after the ban was announced in 2011, there already existed a protocol for confirming the identity of anyone wearing a niqab.

    There remains the symbolic argument that Jason Kenney offers about how we should feel about the niqab being worn during a citizenship ceremony, but how much of the support for a ban would melt away if identity and security concerns were more widely understood to be moot?

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