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No record of niqab wearers in PS, or complaints, says Cabinet secretariat

By Tim Naumetz      

'The Treasury Board Secretariat does not have any data or other information pertaining to niqabs,' a TBS spokesperson said in an email when asked how many federal public servants where the niqab or how many related complaints there were.

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PARLIAMENT HILL—Prime Minister Stephen Harper fanned election campaign flames over the niqab this week with his statements a re-elected Conservative government would bring in legislation to ban the Muslim face covering from the federal public service, but the office that oversees all departments and agencies on behalf of Mr. Harper’s Cabinet says it has no data or information at all regarding the niqab, including any public complaints.

In fact, the Treasury Board Secretariat, which answers to Treasury Board President Tony Clement and provides advice and support to Mr. Clement and his Treasury Board committee of Cabinet, says the federal public service specifically “accommodates employees wearing of religious symbols” unless employee health or safety could be threatened or the accommodation created undue costs to the legal employer of the pubic service.

“The Treasury Board Secretariat does not have any data or other information pertaining to niqabs,” a spokesperson for the secretariat told The Hill Times in an email Tuesday evening, after Mr. Harper’s comments re-ignited an election controversy first fueled by a leaders’ debate in French in Montreal two weeks ago.

The Hill Times asked the Treasury Board Secretariat directly whether any current restriction exists regarding public service employees and wearing of the niqab, as well as specifically whether the secretariat was aware “of any objections that have been raised by either public servants or members of the public interfacing with public service employees about the wearing of the niqab?”

“In response to your questions, the federal public service accommodates employees’ wearing of religious symbols, except in cases where employee health and safety could be jeopardized or, potentially, if accommodation would create undue costs to the employer,” spokesperson Lisa Murphy replied, adding as well the blanket statement that the secretariat had no information at all pertaining to niqabs and the public service.

The Public Service Commission, an agency that acts independently on behalf of Parliament to ensure the public service remains non-partisan and impartial but which also has extensive realm over the public service, also replied it had no knowledge of any niqab concerns or its use in the public service.

“The Public Service Commission does not have that information,” a spokesperson in the commission’s media branch said, referring the inquiry to the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Mr. Harper raised the ante in the Quebec-centred debate over whether Muslim women could wear niqabs while taking part in Canadian citizenship ceremonies—after having already removed the face veils to prove their identities during the legal citizenship test —following a second eruption in a leaders’ French-language debate last Friday,

“I don’t believe there are any women working in the government who wear the niqab,” said Alia Hogben, the head of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

“I think they might be thinking of the future, or creating a controversy because of the election,” Ms. Hogben said Wednesday in an interview.

New Conservative Party attack ads focusing on the niqab this week suggest the Conservatives are more concerned with a political threat currently being posed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau then they are with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, whose party won the most Quebec Commons seats in 2011 but has dropped in recent election opinion polls.

The two ads were posted on the Conservative Party’s YouTube channel with the headline “a large majority of Quebecers want citizenship ceremonies with uncovered faces,” citing an online Ipsos poll. The French-language ads say, “Justin thinks a large majority of Quebecers are wrong.”

Mr. Harper’s spokesman on the election campaign, Kory Teneycke, did not respond to emailed questions.

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