Do Canadians really have a problem with the niqab?

The niqab and its place in our citizenship ceremonies emerged suddenly in the last weeks of the current federal election campaign. Religious garb has been a hot button issue in Quebec in recent years, reflecting Quebecers’ discomfort with religious minorities in its highly secular culture. But this became a national election issue in large part when the news broke that opposition to the niqab in citizenship ceremonies was a view shared by a strong majority of Canadians across the country.

The evidence for this claim comes primarily from a poll conducted for the Privy Council Office (which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office) in March by Leger Marketing. The results of the survey showed that 82 percent of Canadians across the country oppose allowing women to wear the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The finding was treated by the media as conclusive and the issue launched from there. Does the research provide a true reflection of how Canadians feel about this issue?  We should be cautious about jumping to this conclusion, especially in the heat of a close election race where identity politics and anti-Muslim sentiments can be divisive.

First, let’s examine the PCO poll for what it can tell us. The survey was conducted by one of the country’s leading research companies and the methods as documented are sound. But the question wording is technical and perhaps leading. It read:

As you know, the Government of Canada has issued a direction requiring people to show their faces when they are being sworn in as Canadian citizens. This direction means that face coverings, such as niqabs or burqas are not permitted during Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Do you support or oppose a requirement that people show their faces during Canadian citizenship ceremonies?

This may seem like a straightforward question, but it implies that the requirement to remove face coverings is the law, with no mention of recent court rulings to the contrary. Nor is there any mention of the fact that new citizens must already confirm their identity prior the actual ceremony.  If the survey had included these facts, opinions might well have been different. Evidence for this can be found in the results to a follow-up question on the survey which asked those who support the government’s requirement to say why they hold this view (unprompted, that is without offering them specific options). This group is most likely to say they believe women should be required to remove the niqab for identification purposes (29%), while others say because it is the law (11%) or for security reasons (6%). Curiously, the survey does not ask a similar question to those who oppose such a requirement, but some of its supporters in fact offer reasons why they oppose it (e.g., freedom of religion).

Evaluating the results from a survey question should also include consideration of what else is asked on the survey that may influence the results. On this survey, the niqab question was immediately preceded by several questions asking respondents about their support for Canadian foreign policy and/or military involvement in conflicts involving Russia (e.g., in the Ukraine) and ISIS/ISIL. Such questions would have set a context that might well have influenced opinions about government policy pertaining to Muslim practices here in Canada. Perhaps if the survey had prefaced this question by first asking about civil liberties or the country’s ethnic diversity, the results may well have been different.

Apart from what was included or not included on this survey, the broader issue is what we should conclude from one survey about an issue on which most Canadians are not well informed nor have likely given much thought to prior to being surveyed. Is it a true reflection of the public’s deeply-held values or the transient opinion on a topic currently in the news? Think back 25 years ago when there was a comparable controversy over whether or not Sikh RCMP officers should be allowed to wear a turban instead of the traditional Stetson hat. At that time an Environics Research Focus Canada survey revealed that 70 percent of Canadians opposed such accommodation (59% of whom were strongly opposed). Once the courts ruled that turbans were in fact permissible by law, this judgement was quickly accepted by most Canadians (enough so that it was no longer relevant enough to ask on subsequent polls).

Surveys are an important means of giving voice to the broader public on important issues but they also have limitations, especially when addressing topics that are new and outside of most people’s personal experience. This is not to say that the PCO survey results are necessarily incorrect, or that most Canadians do support ones choice to wear a niqab when taking the citizenship oath. The point is that further evidence is needed to properly determine this question. In the meantime, we do a grave disservice to the Muslim community and to all Canadians if we rush to judgment that our country is less tolerant of religious diversity than in fact may be the case. Perhaps it is for this reason that the niqab hasn’t proven to have the traction in this election that some may have hoped and others feared.