OTTAWA — In many elections there is a sleeper issue that jumps up to take everyone by surprise.

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This article was published 1/10/2015 (2206 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


OTTAWA — In many elections there is a sleeper issue that jumps up to take everyone by surprise.

After weeks of a deadlocked three-way tie between the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives, the sleeper issue has emerged.

It’s the niqab. it could change the outcome of the election.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada says since the rule barring the face coverings from being worn took effect in 2011 two women have been refused the chance to take the oath of citizenship because of it. Yes, read that again. I said two.

Just to be clear more than 700,000 people have become Canadian citizens since then.

So two people out of 700,000 asked to wear a niqab.

This is not a big problem folks.

It’s an even smaller problem when you realize at least one of the two women who were refused — Zunera Ishaq — was perfectly happy to uncover her face to a female official before she took the citizenship test. She wasn’t refusing to prove her identity. She just wanted the freedom to practice her cultural and religious beliefs at a time when she was swearing an oath of citizenship to a country that pretends to be based on the freedoms that would let her do so.

So Ishaq sued the government for refusing to allow her to take the citizenship oath with her face covered.

She won, the government appealed, and in a ruling released during the campaign, the government lost the appeal. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, correctly reading the electorate’s Islamophobia, pounced with a plan to challenge it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Harper, persona non grata with most Quebecers for years, suddenly saw an uptick in his Quebec popularity. So did Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois, who had faded into near nothingness before this happened.

That this issue would resonate in Quebec should have been anticipated.

But the fallout in Quebec for the NDP, whose leader Tom Mulcair believes a woman should be able to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, is stunning. It plummeted 17 percentage points in a month.

Not surprising given that in 2007, the Quebec chief electoral officer, who said it was fine for a woman in a niqab to cast a ballot, received threats serious enough to require bodyguards. He then changed the rules, citing concern for the safety of electoral workers at the election polls.

And even more disheartening is how much of this debate pretends to be about women’s rights.

Harper told the House of Commons last March, "why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women."

It is ironic that the very people who claim to be standing up for women’s rights by criticizing the niqab are actually the people discriminating against the women who want to wear one. Yes: want to. There is this idea that no woman in her right mind would choose to cover her face, that this must be about men forcing her to do so and by passing laws against it we are freeing her from tyranny.

While nobody can say every woman who wears a niqab is doing so from her own volition, neither is it true that every woman who wears one does not want to do so. In fact, the woman who sued the government clearly isn’t a wallflower who withers under the orders of others.

This is freedom, folks. Freedom to pursue your cultural or religious beliefs even if they clash with the beliefs of others.

If we want to talk about Canadian values and what is anti-women, why aren’t we talking about the culture in which half of the women in this country have been victims of physical or sexual violence.

Instead, we are discussing how a woman who chooses to wear a veil is eroding Canadian values.

Quite frankly, the erosion of our values comes from this debate itself, not niqab.

Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.

Twitter: @mrabson