Zunera Ishaq came to Canada from Pakistan in 2008. She was granted permanent residency on October 25, 2008 and her application for citizenship was approved by a judge on December 30, 2013. In spite of this, up until the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision on September 15th of this year, she would never be granted citizenship.


Zunera wears a niqab, a veil that covers most of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Zunera is a voluntary member of the Hanafi sect of Islam that requires that she keep her face covered and unveil herself to a stranger only if absolutely necessary for identity or security reasons, and only then privately before other women.

The rule blocking her way to becoming a Canadian citizen is Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s (CIC) CP 15: Guide to Citizenship and Ceremonies. The manual was modified in December 2011 to contain the following section:

13.2. Full or partial face coverings

Candidates for citizenship wearing a full or partial face covering must be identified. When dealing with these female candidates it is the responsibility of a citizenship official to confirm the candidate’s identity. This should be done in private, by a female citizenship official. The candidate must be asked to reveal her face to allow the CIC official to confirm the identity against the documents on file.

The candidates must be advised at this time that, they will need to remove their face covering during the taking of the oath. Failure to do so will result in the candidates not receiving their Canadian citizenship on that day.

The final stage of becoming a Canadian Citizen requires the taking of the citizenship oath. Failure to do so means an applicant will not get their citizenship.

Zunera has no issue with the content of the oath, which requires her to swear that she will be loyal to the Queen and successors and will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill the obligations required of a Canadian citizen. She has no problem revealing herself before a female official in order to confirm her identity.

The issue arises regarding the manner in which she is expected to take the oath. Canadian citizenship oaths are generally taken before a judge at a public ceremony consisting of a mixed group of male and female applicants. According to CP 15’s December 2011 modification (“The Rule”), female applicants wearing the niqab or other face coverings must unveil themselves for the ceremony.

The Rule affects about 100 women per year and is absurd when considering that the identities of the women affected are privately confirmed by a female official prior to taking the citizenship test. The accommodation Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) offered Zunera was nothing short of insensitive, suggesting that they seat her in the front or back row of the ceremony with a woman beside her so that people present would really have work to see her unveiled face.

Court Challenge and Response

Concerned that she would be forced to choose between her faith or her dream of becoming a Canadian citizen, Zunera took the matter to Federal Court.

The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s response was a cavalier take-it-or-leave-it attitude. In Federal Court in February 2015, The Minister claimed that wearing the niqab was a personal choice not a religious obligation, and that women in her situation should just accept the consequences of that choice and not be a Canadian citizen.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander (photo by Alex Guibord via Flickr Creative Commons)
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander (photo by Alex Guibord via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Minister went on to claim that citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and that applicants who refuse to unveil themselves would still have some rights as Permanent Residents of Canada. Though The Minister admitted that The Rule affects mostly Muslim women, he attempted to justify The Rule by the concern that not all citizenship candidates were actually reciting the oath.

From a purely common sense perspective, The Minister’s assertion is ridiculous. The identity of niqab wearing citizenship candidates is already confirmed prior to the ceremony, and the oath, which takes less than a minute to recite, is clearly more of a symbolic act.

Zunera’s application for citizenship had already been granted. She just needed her papers, but she could only get them after the oath-taking ceremony.

Not Actually a Law

What many people don’t know is that the niqab ban is not technically a law. The Rule was introduced as a “Policy” which The Minister has the right to introduce without consent from Canada’s legislature. That means that The Rule was never subjected to debate and approval by our Parliament, nor subjected to public scrutiny.

In Federal Court, The Minister used this in an attempt to argue that The Rule was just a guideline and that immigration judges retained discretion on the matter of oaths and face coverings. This defense bombed when the Court pointed out that there is nothing in the language of The Rule to suggest that it’s optional, and alternative accommodations suggested by a Toronto-area citizenship judge in an interview with CBC Radio in December 2011 were dubbed “problematic” in email correspondence between CIC officials.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Zunera Ishaq’s sect of Islam or whether her adherence to it is actually voluntary, the fact is that the rule barring her from Canadian citizenship was never legitimately enacted by Parliament, nor subject to public scrutiny. The Rule was slipped in to existing legislation using The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration’s prerogative and now the Harper Administration is trying to enforce it as actual law.

This is perhaps because the Harper Government knows that a good old-fashioned Parliamentary debate would have resulted in more balanced legal legislation, or better yet, the striking down of such an obviously prejudicial rule.

* Feature image CBC/YouTube

Panelists Jerry Gabriel, Cem Ertekin and Drew Bell discuss Just for Laughs and the concept of comedy, a week that could define Barack Obama’s presidency and what it means to be Canadian. Plus the Community Calendar and an interview with Gilbert Gottfried

Host: Jason C. McLean
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Cem Ertekin: FTB news editor

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FTB PODCAST #7: Gilbert Gottfried, Obama, and O Canada by Forget The Box on Mixcloud

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I was born in Canada and I have no other country that I could theoretically be considered a citizen of. I guess that means I’m safe. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who do not fit this bill. Even if you were born in Canada, if you could conceivably claim citizenship in another country, you are now a second-class Canadian citizen under the law, thanks to Harper`s Bill C-24, the so-called “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” which passed on June 11th.

Now, anyone convicted of “terrorism or treason” could have their Canadian citizenship revoked if they are a dual citizen or there is a chance they could become the citizen of another country. That means if your grandparents were born somewhere else, you could conceivably get citizenship in that country and the law applies.

C-24 Makes C-51 a Whole Lot More Real

If you qualify as a second-class Canadian, you may not be too worried. You’re not planning on committing treason or carrying out a terrorist act and neither are your friends.

Well, now that C-51 is law, it’s not clear just what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t. The current government is free to label activists they don’t like as terrorists, as is any future government until the law is repealed. Economic boycott, a respectable and effective tactic, could also fall under terrorism according to C-51.

Working in tandem, C-24 and C-51 make it possible for a recent immigrant or someone born here to lose their citizenship for doing something that has been legal up until now and should always be.

Ironic Nightmare Scenarios

Imagine, if you will, a Canadian citizen who could theoretically live in another country. They take part in, say, an Idle No More solidarity action. Harper and company decide to label that terrorism.

This person then gets labelled a terrorist or terrorism promoter under C-51 and then loses their citizenship under C-24. Effectively forced to leave Canada for defending the one group that actually has a right to be here but are treated as second-class citizens already.

Now imagine a Jewish Canadian who participates in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement criticizing Israel. If the government decides to label this economic terrorism, C-51 would make this person a terrorist.

Now, given that Israel grants a right to return to all Jewish people, this person would be considered someone who could go and live there and therefore could lose their Canadian citizenship under C-24. So, they could be forced to live in the very country they are urging a boycott against.


What C-24 Really Is

Above all, C-24 is an intimidation tactic. As long as the risk of being deported or left in limbo for speaking your mind is present, protesting the government or their friends just won’t seem worth the risk to many.

Revoking citizenship for actual crimes or actual terrorism is one thing. Making the consequences dire for expressing an opinion not in favour with the current powers that be is truly frightening.

Change through the political process is important, but without a grassroots opposition that is free to mobilize, it is irrelevant. When you take away the right to protest and oppose, you’re basically left with a fully democratic, open and transparent dictatorship. Yes, people get to change the dictator every four years (or sooner in a minority situation), but when they’re in power, only parliament and mainstream media pundits can oppose them, not the general public.

This should not be a partisan issue or even a left-right thing. Dictatorship is bad no matter who the dictator is.

I wouldn’t want to live under a Harper dictatorship any more than one run by Mulcair, Trudeau, Gilles Duceppe or even Elizabeth May, though the last one, I have to admit, would at least be entertaining. As long as these two laws stay on the books, that’s pretty much what we’re getting.

I don’t use the “d” word lightly, in fact this is the first time I have used it in relation to Canadian politics. But then again, I don’t take C-51 and C-24 lightly, either, and neither should you or, for that matter, anyone.

May 23 marked a century since the Canadian government refused entry to asylum-seekers aboard the steamship Komataga Maru. While Canadians may boast the country as being a ‘multicultural mosaic’, the actual history of immigration is much more insidious.

Today, as Western countries continue to weather poor economic climates and combat non-state actors, these conditions of insecurity affect how policy is reasoned in a variety of fields, especially in the field of immigration and citizenship.

Debates over immigration reform still dominate discussions in both American and European politics. In Canada, the Conservative Government introduced Bill C-24 into the House of Commons. Titled as the ‘Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act’, the bill proposed large-scale reforms to a naturalization process.

Examples of such reforms include: Tripling application fees, stricter language requirements, increasing the residency requirement from three to four years and now require physical presence. The government would be granted the ability to revoke citizenship from persons assessed as never having the intent to live in Canada and from persons with dual citizenship who have been convicted of certain crimes. The bill also seeks to retroactively allow citizenship to ‘lost’ Canadians – those who are entitled for citizenship but either lost, or never received it – and to their children.


The government continues to support the bill with the justification that these reforms will streamline the process – currently backlogged two-three years – and better protect against fraud. Security is also a justification – a dual citizen who takes part in an act of terrorism for example, can also have their citizenship revoked.

Since its introduction however, the bill’s constitutionality has been hotly contested. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has been quoted as referring to citizenship as a privilege. The debate of whether citizenship in itself is a right or a privilege is still taking place in op-eds across the country. At minimum, the act of naturalization and obtaining citizenship is often a ‘merit-based’ process and thus can be construed as a privilege.

However, the main criticism about Bill C-24 is that the privilege would be afforded to less as the reforms would render “Canadian citizenship harder to get and easier to lose”. Furthermore, the implementation of such reforms would “create two classes of Canadians”– those who can have their citizenship revoked and those who cannot. Finally, the loss of the ability to appeal a rejection of citizenship and the ability to revoke citizenship itself accords substantial power in the hands of bureaucrats.

Stephen Harper, Wen JiabaoThe concerns have been voiced in multiple forums by different groups – a petition on Change.org protesting C-24 has amassed over 4000 signatures, professional organizations such as the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have released lengthy statements outlining their concerns, and the bill continues to be debated in Parliament across party lines. Critics also draw trajectories of C-24 as part of a longer and problematic immigration reform process that is “an accumulation of incremental, seemingly innocuous changes”.

In its attempts to protect against the few who may seek to exploit or threaten, Bill C-24’s broad and sweeping provisions may risk burdening all of those to whom it applies. As Western countries continue to grapple with the realities of a globalized society, it is important to create policies that ensure security and efficiency, but acknowledge the nuances in the complicated processes of immigration and naturalization.