OTTAWA – The controversy in Europe over burqa worn by face veils women could spread to other countries, but Canada’s immigration ministry has “no clear departmental policy” on the issue, warns a confidential briefing note prepared for former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg.
The note cautions the department’s guidelines for passport photographs, which require that facial features be visible, “have implications for the removal of face veils.”
Documents obtained by CanWest News Service under the Access to Information Act also reveal department officials closely tracked the controversy as it raged last fall, and the department received internal legal advice on the matter.
The debate over Muslim veils raised questions about the success of multiculturalism in Europe and the ability of immigrants to integrate into mainstream society, while some Muslim groups argued they were unfairly targeted.
There are several variations of the Muslim veil. The niqab usually leaves a slit for the eyes, while the Afghan burka often features a grill that covers the eyes. The hijab, a headscarf more commonly worn in North America, typically leaves the face uncovered.
The veil controversy erupted in early October, when British House of Commons leader Jack Straw asked Muslim women remove their veils in his office.
He called the veil a “visible statement of separation and difference.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair later echoed the comments, calling the veil a “mark of separation.”
The debate spread to continental Europe later in October, when Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi scolded Muslim women for staying “hidden” beneath the veil.
The furor sparked considerable commentary by Canadian newspaper columnists, some of whom predicted Canada could eventually face a similar firestorm.
Communications officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada prepared a “media snapshot” that summarizes the controversy and groups Canadian commentators into two camps: those “for” or “against” the use of the veil in Western society.
Under the “‘Jack-Straw’ stream of thought,” they identify columnists such as Peter Zimonjic of the Ottawa Citizen and Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail.
“Commentators expressing this vein of thought support Straw and Blair’s contention that wearing the niqab or (burka) is a declaration of separation from Western ideals and society. Some also argue it is an affront to Western society and a form of oppressing women,” says the snapshot.
In the other camp are commentators, such as Globe columnist Norman Spector, who believe Muslim women should be free to wear what they choose. They accuse opponents to Muslim veils of “a political attempt to divert attention away from more pertinent issues, such as the failing war in Afghanistan.” Some argue that opposition to the veil “runs contrary to the liberal, tolerant values of a Western democratic society.”
The briefing note to Solberg, who became human resources minister in a cabinet shuffle this month, outlines the department’s position on face veils.
It is dated Nov. 6 and signed by deputy minister Richard Fadden.
“These concerns are not exclusive to the U.K. and as more European leaders come forward to respond to these questions, other countries could be drawn into the debate,” it says of the controversy.
For “security purposes,” all facial features must be visible when individuals pose for photographs for passports, citizenship cards, permanent resident cards and temporary resident visas, according to department guidelines.
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The note says officials “are not aware of any formal complaints regarding Canada’s guidelines.”
However, it notes: “headscarves became a point of concern” in 2004, when several women in Montreal were asked to remove their hijabs while being photographed for permanent resident cards.
In response to “serious concerns” from Muslim groups, the department clarified that head coverings do not have to be completely removed, as long as facial features are visible. But the determination was made “without the benefit of a clear departmental policy.”
The briefing note suggests several “key messages” for the minister, including that “Canada is about personal freedom, equality of opportunity, commitment to rule of law, democracy, respect for others and compassion.”
It notes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of religion and all forms of religious expression, and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act directs federal institutions to “carry on their activities in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada.”
A section marked “next steps,” as well as a memo from the department’s legal counsel, has been blanked out under provisions of the Access to Information Act protecting government advice and solicitor-client privilege.
A department spokesperson said she couldn’t comment on future policy directions.