Bluffs Advocate

Opinion Optics

When it comes to veils, Canadians will eventually accommodate them

By Marc Zwelling

            Religion burst into the federal election campaign, compelling the party leaders to quarrel about a devout Muslim woman from Pakistan who covered her face at her citizenship ceremony.

In September, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the woman, Zunera Ishaq, who refused to take part in a citizenship ceremony because she would have to show her face.

Immigration minister Chris Alexander said the government would go all the way to the Supreme Court to defend a ministerial order against immigrants' concealing their faces when they take their citizenship oaths.

A lower court ruled earlier that the government's ban was unlawful.

Three years ago in Maclean's, senior writer Anne Kingston observed, "No item of female apparel summons more attention, animosity, debate or censure in Western society than the veil covering Muslim women."

What do we think about Muslim women who cover their faces in a veil, niqab or burka?

Nearly everyone liked the ban when the Conservative government introduced it in 2011. In a Forum Research national poll, 81 per cent agreed with the order.

Different question wording in the polls, however, makes it less obvious how strongly Canadians really feel.

In an Ipsos national poll in March this year, 88 per cent supported a "requirement that people show their face during Canadian citizenship ceremonies"— 65 per cent "strongly" supported it.

But in an EKOS Research poll in March, 64 per cent said "the niqab is offensive and should not be allowed" in citizenship ceremonies. On the other side, 29 per cent agreed that "welcoming diversity is what makes Canada a better society, and niqabs should be allowed." (Seven per cent had no opinion.)

In a Forum poll in March, 67 per cent opposed "allowing women to wear the niqab, which covers the face, during citizenship ceremonies." Another 22 per cent said they favoured it. (Ten per cent were undecided.)

In ethnically diverse Toronto, however, just 57 per cent opposed allowing women to wear niqabs in citizenship ceremonies.

In the same survey, 57 per cent nationally—46 per cent in Toronto—agreed "the niqab oppresses women." One fourth said it doesn't (24 per cent); 19 per cent expressed no opinion one way or the other.

So the surveys show there's more support for "requiring" women reveal their faces than "allowing" them to cover up, though the two amount to the same thing.

What about the future? EKOS president Frank Graves commented, "This is … the first really explicit political debate about values that we've seen in Canadian politics in a long time. The old reticence to discuss this issue has been shattered. Which path will Canadians choose?"

When it comes to veils, Canadians will eventually accommodate them. The polls show why.

In the March Forum poll, only 19 per cent of those surveyed who were 65 and older would allow veils when new citizens take their oath. Among those 18 to 34, however, 39 per cent would allow them, a 20-point difference in favour of veils.

In this year's EKOS poll, those under 35 were 17 percentage points less likely than people 65 and up to say "the niqab is offensive and should not be allowed" at citizenship rites.

Of course demography is not destiny. In all polls on values, however, the young are less judgmental, more permissive and more broad-minded. Inevitably veil haters will pass away, replaced by veil agnostics.

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies, published by Wiley (2012).