The issue is simultaneously unimportant and important. It is unimportant in the sense that of all the numerous impactful issues that face us as a nation, the issue of whether a handful of Muslim women who would like to join the country and wear the nicab during the citizenship ceremony is simply nowhere near the top. It is a minor cultural issue and it sickens me that Harper managed to get a boost in the polls by prioritizing this, particularly in Quebec where it really harmed the NDP. We should be talking about something else.
However, I am going to join in on talking about this issue because while it shouldn't be deciding elections, it is nonetheless important, and because there is a major element to the debate that has been entirely missing. Canada does, and ought to, stand for the basic set of freedoms codified in the Charter and endorsed throughout society. We may not like the nicab. I don't like the nicab, although I will recognize that many who wear it don't fit the kinds of caricatures often portrayed. But that doesn't mean freedom of religion goes away! It doesn't mean that the government - an ostensibly freedom loving conservative government no less - has the right to tell a woman how they should dress, that religious identification is all fine except for this particular few inches of cloth.
While Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the centre of the controversy who recently became a citizen after the court ordered the ceremony proceed with her wearing the veil, doesn't show any signs of this, let me assume, for the sake of argument, the worst caricatures of the opposing narrative. Suppose in a case the nicab is not a symbol of religious devotion, but a symbol of male oppression, forced on women against there will and preventing them from engaging in a pluralistic society. Assume everything bad you can imagine. How, exactly, is this desired ban helping that? Don't we want these woman to be able to leave their homes and engage with society? Don't we want to be welcoming and accepting of these woman as they are so they can feel comfortable to learn about our society, and make their own choices? Perhaps this isn't a slippery slope where the citizenship ceremonies is just the first place such bans occur (Harper has already speculated on bans in public service; Europe is moving steadily in this direction), but is making it so women don't feel able - or aren't allowed, under these assumptions - to leave the house actually helping anyone? Outside of making us feel self righteous (as we violate our core principles of freedom of religion), I don't see the point.
The missing issue:
Versions of the above have been said by many much more eloquently than me. Let me raise a different question: why are we required to swear oaths at all? There are those who want to become citizens but don't feel comfortable with the oath new Canadians are required to say. I am not comfortable with it, although I didn't have to say it as a natural born Canadian. One of my professors is not comfortable with it either, and has led an unsuccessful legal battle to be able to become a citizen without this oath. I think Canada should be a republic, and think it is repulsive that we should swear fealty to a monarch who happens to be the head of a religion.
Much like Zunera Ishaq, Dror Bar-Natan and his fellow litigants have had various court cases and even got a few news stories. However, their story has not animated the public discourse to anywhere near the same level as Zunera Ishaq who has become, arguably, the single biggest issue in the election campaign. In both cases we have a purely symbolic ceremony that can't be done in a particular way because someone wants to become a citizen but has religious or political objections to how exactly that is to be done. For those that agree with me that the nicab should not disqualify one from becoming Canadian, is it not a small leap to agree with me that swearing fealty to an unelected monarch ought also not be a disqualifier?
I have long argued on this blog that Canada should be a republic, that the Monarchy while only symbolic and lacking de facto power nonetheless symbolizes many bad things we should reject and doesn't symbolize the many good things (such as, ironically, freedom of religion) that we might wish to symbolize as a country. This is view is entirely legal for me to type, and indeed would be a gross violation of freedom of expression for there to be any law against me expressing it. Why, then, would we demand and citizenship be conferred only to those willing to swear an oath that fundamentally violates this view? And why on earth would we care what people wore when they said it. Or, ideally, didn't say it.