Citizenship Oath Now Requires Women to Remove All Face Coverings

2011-12-14

Recently, the Minister of Immigration produced a directive (OB 359) requiring all face coverings to be removed when an individual takes the Canadian oath of citizenship.

This directive is aimed primarily at muslim women who wear a hijab or burqa during the citizenship ceremony where each person must pledge allegiance to Canada.

The rationale seems to be that the coverings mask the wearer’s mouth, making it unclear if the person taking the oath is actually reciting the pledge or remaining silent.

Currently, there is a lot of debate on this issue. In my view, the debate is misguided, focussing on whether a face covering can be worn during the citizenship ceremony or not.

As an immigration lawyer, I take a different view of this issue.

Whether I (or you) agree that wearing a face covering during a citizenship ceremony is acceptable or not, is less important than the process that was followed on this issue.

Lawyers are concerned with process, because process ultimately determines fairness – whether or not a rule is fair when implemented.

My concerns are as follows:

1) The Minister implemented a directive, which is a very quick way to change fundamental rules. In a democratic society, changes to laws should be done through the legislative process through the Parliament of Canada where the issue can be debated by political representatives and covered through the media.

2) Related to #1, above, there was no requirement in law that an individual was required to be seen to be reciting the pledge (this is why a directive was required). So what was the rush in this case? Why did this have to happen so quickly? I can’t see a compelling reason to bypass the legislative process in this case.

3) No accommodation. There is simply no accommodation with this directive. There could be private oath taking with female officers when the covering could be removed. An individual could sign a sworn affidavit that the pledge was taken which would have equal effect and would not require the covering to be removed. If there were public debate through the legislature, perhaps many alternatives could have been proposed to accommodate individuals and also ensure the pledge was taken.

4) Related to #3, above, without accommodation, we may be placing muslim women in danger. Muslim women who are not permitted by their families and culture to remove a face covering, but must do so under these rules may face consequences in their community. We are placing a requirement on individuals who may have limited ability to practically comply with it.

5) Canada is a free country. The reason Canada is so attractive to immigrants is that we are country where individuals are free to practice any religion they wish. Imposing requirements that conflict with the freedom of religion without exploring accommodation or alternatives first is not what this country is about.

To be sure, I’m not saying that individuals should absolutely be entitled to impose their religious practices (such as face coverings) in all circumstances. Perhaps individuals should be seen taking a pledge of allegiance, perhaps not.

But certainly we should at the very least explore simple alternatives that could accommodate both muslim women and Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s needs to ensure a pledge of allegiance is taken. And we should do so through Parliament, and not directives.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this issue as well.

About the author

Gianpaolo Panusa Gianpaolo Panusa is a Canadian immigration lawyer, writer, and founder of the PanCanadian Immigration Law Group based in Vancouver, Canada. Google+ Profile

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