OTTAWA — A new court ruling means a devout Muslim woman who chooses to cover her face now has a chance to become a Canadian and vote in the Oct. 19 federal election.
The Federal Court of Appeal rejected Monday a government request to put a recent decision in favour of Zunera Ishaq on hold while Ottawa seeks a hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Justice Johanne Trudel dismissed the government's application for a stay of a Sept. 15 decision that affirmed the unlawfulness of a federal rule prohibiting a niqab at a citizenship ceremony.
Ishaq, 29, came to Ontario from Pakistan in 2008. She refused to take part in a citizenship ceremony because she would have to show her face due to a December 2011 policy requiring candidates who wear full or partial face coverings to remove them during recitation of the oath.
The Federal Court of Canada found the rule unlawful in February and the Court of Appeal recently upheld the decision. A three-judge panel ruled from the bench immediately after a hearing, saying they wanted Ishaq to obtain citizenship in time to vote.
On Monday, Trudel said she could not agree to the federal request for a stay of the appeal court's mid-September ruling.
"I find that the appellant has not demonstrated that refusing his application for stay would result in irreparable harm to the public interest," she wrote. "This suffices to dispose of the appellant’s motion for stay."
In a statement released Monday night, Ishaq said she was pleased the courts have reaffirmed her right to citizenship and to vote.
Ishaq also said she was disappointed with the government's focus on her case "when there is so much more that merits the attention of Canadians at this time."
"I'm also disappointed that Mr. Harper continually twists the facts of my case for his gain," she said.
"I wish to confirm that I will be identified without my veil for the purposes of the ceremony. This has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with my right — and the right of all Canadians — to think, believe and dress without government interference."
The issue of face coverings at citizenship ceremonies has become a highly divisive one on the federal election trail, generating sparks in two French-language debates.
The Conservatives argue it is essential — and consistent with national values — to show one's face at the very moment of becoming a Canadian citizen.
"We are disappointed in the court's decision, especially as we were waiting on the Supreme Court to hear our appeal," Conservative spokesman Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
"We have committed to rectifying this matter going forward by introducing legislation that will require one to show their face while swearing the oath of citizenship."
The NDP and Liberals have accused the government of using the issue, which affects only a small number of women, as a means of distracting voters from more important issues like the economy.
Critics of the federal stance note all new citizens must show their face as proof of identity before becoming a Canadian and that the government should not tell them what they can wear during the actual ceremony.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press