Interview: Jason Kenney responds to Justin Trudeau’s speech

Liberal leader shows ’a grotesque lack of judgment,’ Defence Minister says
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 20: Jason Kenney.
(Chris Wattie, Reuters)
(Chris Wattie, Reuters)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau delivered a hard-hitting speech in Toronto yesterday, taking aim at the Conservative government’s policy against face veils being worn by immigrants when they are swearing the Canadian citizenship oath. That restriction was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge last month, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper opted to appeal the decision.

“It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear,” Trudeau said, adding later, “We all know what is going on here: It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith.” At another point, Trudeau said Canadians “should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a ‘none is too many’ immigration policy toward Jews in the ’30s and ’40s, being used to raise fears against Muslims today.”

Related: For the record, a transcript of Justin Trudeau’s speech

Not allowing face coverings during the citizenship oath—notably the niqab worn by a small minority of Muslim women in Canada—was a policy introduced by Defence Minister Jason Kenney, back in 2011 when he was immigration minister. Kenney spoke to Maclean’s by phone today about Trudeau’s unsparing critique of his policy. This is an edited version of the interview:

Q: Will Justin Trudeau’s speech change the debate over the ban on wearing face veils while taking the citizenship oath?

A: I think his speech was outrageous and beyond the pale. To compare anti-Semitic immigration restrictions during the Holocaust to a request that people take the public citizenship oath publicly demonstrates a grotesque lack of judgment on his part.

The facts profoundly belie everything he said or intimated. It’s almost ridiculous to try to rebut what he said. I mean, this is a government that has maintained the highest immigration levels in our history since coming to office—almost 300,000 Muslims have immigrated to Canada.

Perhaps Mr. Trudeau has some legitimate difference of opinion on allowing the self-effacement of women when they are doing a public citizenship oath, but to suggest this is reminiscent of anti-Semitism during the Holocaust is bizarre and contemptible.

Related: Stephen Harper and the niqab gambit

Q: Even if one accepts that that comparison was extreme, why would you even come close to risking your reputation for having reached out to immigrants of all sorts for a policy that affects a tiny number of women who want to wear a veil while swearing the oath?

A: Something politically correct Canadian Liberals don’t understand, which I do rather profoundly, is that the vast majority of new Canadians, including new Canadians of the Muslim faith, believe that there are certain important hallmarks of integration. They don’t believe that multiculturalism should be misconstrued as cultural relativism. They believe that multiculturalism should mean a positive regard for what’s best about people’s cultural and religious antecedents. But it should not mean a completely unquestioning acceptance of every cultural practice, especially those of the most abhorrent nature.

I can tell you that the vast majority of Muslims that I’ve spoken with strongly supported my decision in 2010 to state what I thought was axiomatic—that a public citizenship ceremony has to be performed publicly.

Related: Trudeau accuses Harper of stoking prejudice against Muslims

Q: But isn’t there a difference between saying ‘The niqab represents a sort of oppression,’ and saying, ‘We’re going to ban it?’

A: That’s just it: We’re not banning it. I have a long public record on this. You go right back to the very day I announced this. I was baited by Quebec media, and asked why we weren’t seeking a broader ban on wearing niqabs and face coverings, why we weren’t adopting the French approach. I said then and I’ve said consistently since then that I think the state has no business regulating what people wear.

I may find the niqab a very problematic reflection of an oppressive attitude toward women, but I don’t think the state has any business telling people what they wear. I do think there are some moments, where there’s an interaction between the individual and the state, particularly when it’s by its very nature a public declaration, that people should do so publicly.

So it seems to me that there’s a point where some politically correct Liberals suspend their ability to think critically about these things and to actually see some nuance and make some distinctions.

Q: I think some people would object to the term “politically correct” being applied here. It’s possible to object to the niqab in terms of the place of women in society, but still feel reluctant to agree that we should make it impossible for somebody to swear a citizenship oath wearing one.

A: I think Canadians are extraordinarily tolerant and pluralistic people. And that is reflected in the fact in opinion polling on this well over 80 per cent believe the citizenship oath should be taken publicly and not in hiding.

Some people say, Why can’t you have women wearing face coverings go and swear the oath in a separate room? The reason is because I don’t believe in segregation. I think it’s profoundly offensive, as Mr. Trudeau believes, that in the very first act of somebody becoming a Canadian that they should be segregated, ostensibly on the grounds of their religion.

I’m very robust in my defence of religious freedom. I note that a huge number of Muslims have reminded me that the face covering is not a religious obligation. This is a cultural tradition of Arab tribes from the pre-Medieval period that has been imposed on some women. As a pluralist, I don’t believe we should interfere with people observing that tradition generally in their private lives. But when there are those interactions between the individual and the state, particularly at a public ceremony, I think our position is eminently reasonable.