Someone should take the fall for Ottawa’s botched Phoenix pay system

Hard to disagree with Barrie McKenna: the lack of accountability at both the political and bureaucratic level, the inability of government to manage large-scale IT projects and the miss match between those who “sold” the project and those responsible for delivery are of broad concern, not just in the case of Phoenix.

IT in government is complex given the myriad of requirements and groups involved.

My experience with IT in government is a mixed bag. My most successful project, done with a small group of PCO policy types, was the creation of an Access database to manage the then Chrétien government annual priority setting exercise. Delivered on time, it worked  and ensured consistent tracking rather than the previous time-consuming and error prone Word-based process.

My second experience, also at PCO, but on a larger scale (more data, more users) and thus involving IT folks, was replacing the previous Cabinet meeting planning system with a more up-to-date platform with more flexibility. The IT folks and the consultant never got it to work during my time there.

Lastly, at Service Canada, we partnered with Service New Brunswick to deliver, on Transport Canada’s behalf, a system for pleasure craft licensing. When it went live, it crashed but we were able to identify and fix the problem within a few days (the data link capacity was too small, something missed in all the preparations, by all involved). After that it worked well (Service Canada eventually decided to end its involvement and focus on core services to ESDC):

The mess that is Phoenix is a story of misguided political objectives, bungled management of a major technology project and a complete failure by anyone in charge to take responsibility for mistakes.

The fiasco raises troubling questions about the government’s ability to perform one of its most basic functions – paying its bills and taking care of employees. The Phoenix system is just one of the major information-technology projects, totalling billions of dollars, now under way in the government.

Centralizing the multitude of separate payroll systems was the brainchild of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which was convinced it could wring huge savings out of the bureaucracy. In charge were then-public works minister Rona Ambrose (now interim Conservative leader) and Tony Clement, former president of the treasury board. Neither has expressed any remorse for the fiasco.

The Conservatives eliminated 700 payroll jobs in dozens of departments, mainly in Ottawa, and created a new centralized pay centre in Miramichi, N.B. – political compensation for the shuttered gun registry. Most of those offered positions there refused to move, leaving the running of Phoenix in the hands of hundreds of untrained new hires.

The problem now belongs to the Liberal government, which could have delayed deployment of the system to work out the inevitable bugs. To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged his government initially didn’t take the problem seriously.

“I’ll admit it,” Mr. Trudeau told a frustrated civil servant at a town hall in Kingston, Ont., earlier this year. “This government … didn’t pay enough attention to the challenges and the warning signs on the transition we were overseeing.”

But the mea culpa came three months after the government had promised to resolve the payroll mess. Now, it’s not even offering a target.

Just as troubling is the lack of accountability within the upper ranks of civil servants. Many of those responsible have retired or moved to other jobs in the government. No one has been fired.

Nor has there been a thorough investigation by Parliament of what went wrong. Deputy Minister of Public Works Marie Lemay, who inherited the payroll problem, appeared before the House of Commons government operations committee last year. But none of the original architects of the system have had to answer for their roles.

And then there is IBM Canada, which Ottawa hired to design and implement the system. It appears the government, not IBM, is on the hook for fixing the problems. So why, one wonders, would the government sign a contract that left it so dangerously exposed to financial and technical risk?

Phoenix was supposed to save Ottawa $70-million a year. Instead, the government has spent $50-million fixing the problem, including an extra $6-million paid to IBM, and there is no end in sight.

This isn’t just a story of a botched payroll system. It’s about the chronic inability of governments to manage major purchases, including technology projects.

Unless Ottawa gets to the bottom of what went wrong on Phoenix, it will keep making the same mistakes elsewhere in the government.

That should worry all taxpayers, not just government workers.

Source: Someone should take the fall for Ottawa’s botched Phoenix pay system – The Globe and Mail

Shared Services Canada, already having resulted in the resignation of the Chief Statistician (INSERT), now comes under fire from the RCMP:

CBC News has obtained a blistering Jan. 20, 2017, memo to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in which Commissioner Bob Paulson details how critical IT failures have increased by 129 per cent since the beleaguered department took over tech support for the entire government five years ago.

Not only that, the memo says, the duration of each outage has increased by 98 per cent.

“Its ‘one size fits all’ IT shared services model has negatively impacted police operations, public and officer safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system,” reads the memo.

The document appears to respond to a request for more information after a series of CBC News reports on the RCMP’s long-standing dissatisfaction with Shared Services Canada (SSC).

Despite the agency’s creation of special teams and committees to address shoddy service and repeated computer outages, Paulson said minimal progress has been made.

The commissioner bolstered his arguments by enclosing an appendix of recent critical incidents to show just how little appreciation or understanding there is for operational law enforcement requirements.

RCMP commissioner warns continued IT failures will have ‘catastrophic’ consequences

RCMP commissioner worries ‘caustic political discourse’ is radicalizing extremists

Sensible observations and words, applying to Canadian and foreign political discourse:

Canada’s top cop says he’s concerned that the “caustic tone” of “political discourse” in Canada may be a contributing factor in radicalizing “criminal extremists” like the shooter in Quebec City last week.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson appeared Monday at the Senate standing committee on national security and defence and was asked for an update on the terrorism threat in Canada in the wake of the Quebec City massacre at the Ste-Foy mosque.

Paulson refused to provide specific numbers of individuals or groups under investigation. Yet asked whether authorities detect a rise in what Paulson had called “non-classic” terrorist activity such as the offender in Quebec City, he said, “there’s not an increase in that particular type of activity but there is, I think everyone would agree, a more sort of caustic tone to the political discourse that seems to attract and agitate and radicalize people of all persuasions, particularly those who know hardly anything about it, to engage.”

“And that represents a concern for us. And I think everybody’s concerned about that including the Service (Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS) and us and other police forces. And we are doing everything we can to get our heads around it.”

In the wake of the shooting, he said, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police convened its counter-terrorism committee to compare notes and reach out to Muslim community leaders, in part to ensure they were aware of any risk to them.

“We are doubling our efforts down with our police partners to make sure that we have a full sense of the picture there.” he said.

Drawing a distinction between classic jihadist-inspired terrorism and other kinds of radicalization, Paulson gave the example of Freemen of the Land “out in the West,” referring to followers of a movement who refuse to acknowledge police authority and believe only laws they consent to are applicable to them. Paulson said police have had “numerous encounters with that kind of criminality and other instances.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s overtaking the classic terrorism threat but it’s something we shouldn’t lose sight of as we pursue these other threats.”

 

…But Paulson did not back down from his clear warning there are lessons to be drawn from the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, charged with first-degree murder after six Muslim men died in the Ste-Foy shooting on Jan 29.Bissonnette’s social media activity showed he “liked” a wide range of pages that did not fall under a specific ideology, including those of U.S. President Donald Trump, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, the federal NDP and former NDP leader Jack Layton.

“This offender needs to be understood, what was driving him to have acted in the way that he did,” said Paulson. “And sometimes there’s a political backdrop to that. And you know it seems to me more broadly some of the conversations that are taking place in some of those chats, on the Internet, on Twitter and those kinds of forums, approach — and I’ve been asked several times how come we’re not pursuing hate crime investigations in some areas — so we need to make sure we’re being thoughtful about doing that.”

Paulson said police continue to investigate whether terrorism charges are warranted in Bissonnette’s case. “If at some point in the view of the police and the prosecutor there is a compelling public interest dimension and the evidence is sufficiently developed to make the sensible argument that a terrorism prosecution is in order, then that’s what will happen.”

Source: RCMP commissioner worries ‘caustic political discourse’ is radicalizing extremists | Toronto Star

RCMP allows Muslim women Mounties to wear hijab

English media finally caught up to the French media on this story (see earlier Le hijab, nouvelle pièce d’équipement des agentes de la GRC)

The Mounties have adopted a new uniform policy to allow female Muslim officers to wear the hijab.

Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, confirmed that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson recently approved an addition to the uniform policy to allow women officers to wear the head scarf “if they so choose.”

“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is a progressive and inclusive police service that values and respects persons of all cultural and religious backgrounds,” Bardsley said in an email.

Male members of the Sikh faith have been able to wear the turban as part of the RCMP uniform since the early 1990s, he noted.

That right was won by Baltej Singh Dhillon, a young practising Sikh who wanted to become a Mountie but also wanted to wear a turban on the job.

The federal government’s decision in 1990 to end the ban and allow him provoked emotional debate and widespread protests across Canada.

Bardsley said the new policy is intended to better reflect diversity in Canadian communities and to encourage more Muslim women to consider the RCMP as a career option.

Special RCMP hijab developed

RCMP Staff Sgt. Julie Gagnon said current policy, which came into effect in January 2016, requires an “exemption” to wear the hijab from the commissioner, the only senior officer permitted to approve faith-based accommodations.

Gagnon said the RCMP developed a hijab for applicants or serving female members of the Islamic faith, reflecting “the diversity of the RCMP’s workforce.” It underwent rigorous testing to ensure the design meets “the highest standards of officer safety.”

She said the RCMP currently has no members requesting to wear the hijab on duty.

The only other religious or cultural item allowed is the turban for male officers.

Source: RCMP allows Muslim women Mounties to wear hijab – Politics – CBC News

 

Le hijab, nouvelle pièce d’équipement des agentes de la GRC

Did not see this in the English language press.

Similar to policies in Edmonton and Toronto and consistent with the 1990 decision to allow Canadian Sikh members of the RCMP to wear a turban:

Dupuis janvier, la Gendarmerie royale du Canada (GRC) offre à ses agentes de confession musulmane le droit de porter le hijab avec leur uniforme.

Le commissaire de la GRC, Bob Paulson, a expliqué dans une note d’information à l’intention du ministre de la Sécurité publique, Ralph Goodale, que cette mesure vise à permettre au corps policier de refléter davantage la diversité culturelle du pays et d’encourager les femmes de confession musulmane à entrer au service de la GRC.

La GRC devient ainsi le troisième corps policier au pays à permettre aux agentes qui le désirent de porter le hijab, après la police de Toronto en 2011 et la police d’Edmonton en 2013, a souligné le commissaire Paulson dans sa note obtenue par La Presse en vertu de la Loi sur l’accès à l’information.

«La décision de permettre le port du hijab avec l’uniforme de la GRC a pour but de mieux refléter la diversité changeante dans nos communautés et à encourager plus de femmes musulmanes à envisager le travail de policier comme option de carrière», affirme Bob Paulson dans cette note datée du 14 janvier.

Il a souligné que trois sortes de hijab ont été testés par les autorités policières au cours des derniers mois et que le hijab qui a été retenu peut s’enlever rapidement, n’est pas encombrant et ne représente donc pas un risque pour l’agente qui décidera de le porter.

 «Les tests ont démontré que le hijab ne réduit en rien l’efficacité d’une agente dans l’exercice de ses fonctions.» – Le commissaire de la GRC, Bob Paulson

À l’étranger, d’autres pays ont aussi décidé de permettre aux policières de porter le hijab dans le cadre de leurs fonctions, notamment la Grande-Bretagne, la Suède et la Norvège, tout comme d’ailleurs certains États américains, a souligné le grand patron de la GRC. Il a rappelé que les Forces armées canadiennes permettent également aux femmes musulmanes de le porter.

Aucune demande pour le moment

En vertu de la Loi sur la Gendarmerie royale, le commissaire de la GRC est le seul haut gradé du corps policier ayant le pouvoir d’accorder des accommodements religieux aux agents. Mais il appert que M. Paulson n’a reçu aucune demande en ce sens pour le port du hijab de la part d’agentes employées de la GRC. «Jusqu’ici, il n’y a pas eu de demande formelle faite par une agente pour porter le hijab lorsqu’elle est en devoir», a d’ailleurs souligné M. Paulson dans sa note, soulignant que les demandes d’accommodements religieux sont traitées au cas par cas.

Toutefois, au cours des deux dernières années, la GRC a reçu quelque 30 demandes d’accommodements pour des raisons culturelles ou religieuses un peut partout au pays. Dans la majorité des cas, il s’agissait de policiers qui réclamaient le droit de porter la barbe, comme l’exige leur religion.

Rappelons que la GRC permet à ses policiers de porter le turban depuis 1990 dans la foulée d’une décision de la Cour suprême du Canada.

Source: Le hijab, nouvelle pièce d’équipement des agentes de la GRC | Joël-Denis Bellavance | Politique canadienne

Many Mounties oppose opening ranks to permanent residents, easing entrance requirements, spokesmen say

The change from making Canadian citizenship a requirement to a preference brings the RCMP in line with the overall public service, although this change is unlikely to make much of a difference to recruitment.

Military, RCMP, CSIS.001As noted in earlier posts and in the above chart, the RCMP diversity numbers are poor:

The Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada (MPPAC) said Sunday management has caved in to political correctness and the “knee jerk” changes amount to lowering standards.

“Essentially we face operational security issues as well as serious repercussions in service delivery if we hire people to meet political vs. operational criteria,” the association said in a statement through spokesman Rob Creasser.

On the issue of allowing permanent residents to apply to become Mounties, the association asked, “As a Canadian icon, shouldn’t the national police be Canadian?”

Internal records obtained by the National Post through access-to-information legislation show when the force announced the changes in May, officials anticipated questions over whether hiring non-citizens could affect the RCMP’s image and “what the RCMP represents.”

The RCMP’s proposed response says fewer young people are interested in policing careers and the force is struggling to attract “not only applicants, but also diverse applicants.”

Allowing permanent residents to apply would improve diversity and help the force deliver “culturally sensitive policing.”

The documents note the force’s senior executive committee has set recruitment targets of 30 per cent women, 20 per cent visible minorities and 10 per cent aboriginal.

Still, “RCMP recruiting standards remain very high and we continue to seek to attract the most qualified applicants from all backgrounds,” according to the documents.

The RCMP has a proud tradition as a national symbol of Canada, and that will continue

“The RCMP has a proud tradition as a national symbol of Canada, and that will continue. This change will also directly contribute to the RCMP’s commitment to ensure a workforce that is representative of Canada.”

Despite the new measures, the RCMP will still give priority to applicants who are Canadians citizens.

Permanent residents must have lived in Canada for at least 10 years, but if hired, they will be not be pressured to become citizens as that is a “personal choice.”

The force is also exempting more people from having to take the entrance exam, a test designed to gauge aptitude for police work.

University graduates have been exempt since June 2015. Now, they are being joined by people with two-year college diplomas.

In a further streamlining of initial screening, applicants need not prove they are physically fit. All physical testing now takes place during the 26-week program at the RCMP’s cadet training academy.

These changes were adopted in response to complaints the application process was “too long, inflexible and outdated,” the RCMP says.

Sgt. Brian Sauvé, co-chairman of the National Police Federation (NPF), another association representing some Mounties, said Sunday while the federation does not have a problem with opening applications to permanent residents — this will help the force represent Canada’s “blend of great people”  — it has serious concerns with the other changes.

All applicants should undergo aptitude and fitness evaluations before joining the training academy, he said. Without them, the force runs the risk of more people getting injured during training, as well as higher attrition rates later as recruits realize policing is not for them.

Source: Many Mounties oppose opening ranks to permanent residents, easing entrance requirements, spokesmen say

RCMP changes application requirements, with permanent residents welcome to apply

Military, RCMP, CSIS.001RCMP employment equity reports consistently show under-representation as the above chart shows. The citizenship requirement change will make a slight difference: after 10 years, about 65 percent of visible minorities are citizens, with the percentage rising to 80 percent after 15 years:

The RCMP has changed its application requirements, with more people now eligible to apply to be a Mountie and some applicants not needing to take some of the previously mandatory tests.

Up until now, Mounties had to be Canadian citizens. But under the changes that took effect today, permanent residents who have lived in Canada for at least 10 years are eligible to apply.

The shift could only help the RCMP meet its target for 20 per cent of its ranks to be comprised of visible minorities.

Last summer, the RCMP exempted university graduates from taking the national police force’s entrance exam. Now, people with a minimum two-year college diploma may also skip the exam, which tests a person’s aptitude for police work.

There are also changes to the physical abilities requirement evaluation. Previously, prospective recruits had to complete the test at their own expense before submitting an application. Going forward, RCMP applicants won’t have to perform the test until they’ve been accepted at the RCMP’s training academy in Regina — called Depot Division — and the Mounties will cover the cost.

The RCMP says it will reimburse the $79 fee to anyone who completed the test between Jan. 1 and March 15, 2016.

These are big changes for the national police force; the RCMP Act says members of the RCMP must be citizens. The only exception is when there is no one available for appointment who meets all the criteria except citizenship.

It suggests the Mounties may not be receiving enough applications to keep up with the pace of retirements or meet the demands of its policing contracts with several provinces. That could explain a notice on the RCMP website that reads: “In order to meet organizational needs, applicants from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba will have the opportunity to select their home province for their first post following graduation.”

Source: RCMP changes application requirements, with permanent residents welcome to apply – Politics – CBC News

RCMP refugee screening a $16M flop, says internal report

Must be some lessons learned from a big data perspective, both for the RCMP as well as the government as a whole:

$16-million RCMP project to help keep dangerous refugees out of Canada has turned out to be an expensive security flop.

An internal evaluation says the screening project delivered information too late, strayed beyond its mandate, and in the end did almost nothing to catch refugees who might be linked to criminal or terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, 30 Mounties were tied up for four years on duties that did little to enhance Canada’s security.

FedElxn Conservatives 20150909

Then prime minister Stephen Harper said in Welland, Ont., on Sept. 9, 2015, that Canada needed to proceed cautiously in taking in refugees from war zones because they had to be properly screened for criminal and terrorism links. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

“The current approach does not appear to provide much by way of relevant information to support the admissibility screening of refugee claimants,” concludes the Sept. 29, 2015, report, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

The report on the anemic results was completed at about the same time as then prime minister Stephen Harper said Canada had to proceed cautiously in accepting Syrian refugees so that Canada’s screening process could weed out terrorists.

“When we are dealing with people that are from, in many cases, a terrorist war zone, we are going to make sure that we screen people appropriately and the security of this country is fully protected,” Harper told a 2015 election rally in Welland, Ont.

“We cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process. That is too great a risk for Canada.”

Domestic databases checked

The RCMP screening pilot was launched in 2011-12 as part of a package of Conservative reforms tightening up the processing of refugees, including a controversial move to withdraw some medical treatments for rejected asylum seekers. The Liberals have since reversed that measure.

Under the pilot project, the RCMP vetted potential refugees already in Canada — the names were provided by the Canada Border Services Agency — by checking domestic police databases for links to criminal or terrorist organizations, among other things.

Source: RCMP refugee screening a $16M flop, says internal report – Politics – CBC News

Spy agencies see sharp rise in number of Canadians involved in terrorist activities abroad – The Globe and Mail

Not totally unsurprising that the numbers have increased, as well as our ability to detect:

Canada’s spy agencies have tracked 180 Canadians who are engaged with terrorist organizations abroad, while another 60 have returned home.

The latest figures mark a significant increase from the findings of the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which identified about 130 people involved in terror-related activities overseas, including 30 taking an active role with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria.

“The total number of people overseas involved in threat-related activities – and I’m not just talking about Iraq and Syria – is probably around 180,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michel Coulombe told The Globe and Mail after testifying before the House of Commons public safety committee. “In Iraq and Syria, we are probably talking close to 100.”

These people are involved in various activities, including direct combat, training, fundraising to support attacks, promoting radical views and planning terrorist violence.

Mr. Coulombe said about 60 suspected foreign fighters have returned to Canada, although he stressed the numbers keep changing almost daily.

Source: Spy agencies see sharp rise in number of Canadians involved in terrorist activities abroad – The Globe and Mail

Phil Gurski’s take on their testimony:

I think the most important message in all this is that despite a rise in those who pose a real terrorist threat, the number is still relatively low, and perhaps manageable – though I will of course leave it to CSIS and the RCMP to make that call – in comparison to other countries.  Our allies in Europe and the Middle East are facing threats that are orders of magnitude larger than ours.  We here in Canada remain more or less safe: that does not mean that the threat is not real and that we can start shaving money and resources from our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  Again, though, it is important to see the positive side of this.  Sorry for the repetition, but the terrorist scourge does not represent an existential threat to this country and most likely never will.  The glass is half full people.

The current terrorist threat environment in Canada

 

Experts say Liberal counter-radicalization office should bridge, not drive, regional efforts

Not sure it is an either/or choice, some mix of the two approaches may be best:

The challenges, say security and radicalization experts, will lie in defining exactly how the office would work with regional actors: namely, whether it will act as a bridge or a driver.

“Is this going to be driven top-down by government or will it be government supporting more grassroots initiatives?” asked Michael Zekulin, a terrorism researcher at the University of Calgary. “I think most people would agree that it cannot be government-driven because part of the narrative is that government is part of the problem.”

During committee hearings on C-51, the Conservatives’ controversial anti-terrorism legislation, the critique given most often by terrorism researchers was that the bill ignored the need to nip radicalization in the bud, before individuals become inspired to commit violence.

Yet nothing in the legislation provided any kind of a plan for doing that.

The RCMP also promised to launch their own $3.1.-million program — initially called the Countering Violent Extremism Program but later changed to the Terrorism Prevention Program — which then-Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney admitted had no designated timeline and relies on “leveraging existing resources the RCMP already has in place, including frontline police officers, Integrated National Security Enforcement Team members and outreach coordinators.”

At this point, there are few details available about what the Liberals would plan to do differently or how a national coordinator would work with existing programs already being implemented by regional bodies.

There are various initiatives being launched by police agencies and local governments across Canada, said Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.

In September, the City of Montreal was the only Canadian city out of 23 from across the globe that signed on to the Strong Cities Network, a forum for leaders to share best practices and community-based approaches for tackling violent extremism, while the Edmonton and Ottawa police departments are rumoured to be planning their own counter-extremism initiatives.

The York Regional Police are also in the process of hiring a “Counter Violent Extremism Subject Matter Expert” and just two months ago the Calgary Police Service launched ReDirect, which aims to prevent youth from becoming radicalized after several high-profile instances of local youth leaving the country to join ISIS.

One of those young men was Damian Clairmont, who died in January 2014 after going to Syria to fight with ISIS.

His mother, Christianne Boudreau, became an active proponent for stronger initiatives to prevent youth from becoming radicalized and in addition to launching her own family counselling network, Hayat Canada, also helped launch the the Extreme Dialogue video campaign earlier this year.

Boudreau says it’s essential to have someone who can coordinate efforts nationally and help integrate global best practices into domestic, community-based approaches. But she cautions that any coordinator will face the added challenge of having to earn the trust of organizations who may be skeptical of working with the government.

“I think the biggest difficulty is the diversity of the various organizations and helping them connect — there’s inter-faith, there’s the authorities and everybody else involved, and right now [there’s] the trust factor with the authorities, with the government,” she said, noting that any national coordinator should also be prepared to work with international partners as well as domestic ones to learn and adapt best practices.

“It’s integral to help bring the groups together to help cross those barriers, to help foster the diversity that’s there and help everybody get along.”

Experts say Liberal counter-radicalization office should bridge, not drive, regional efforts

The niqab election: Commentary by Wherry and Hébert, past controversies

Aaron Wherry has the rights argument nailed down:

At the outset, it should be understood that the niqab debate, or at least this particular niqab debate, is not about the niqab. Whether you like or agree with the niqab is irrelevant. How you would feel about your daughter wearing the niqab is besides the point. You are entitled to your opinion and, given the fraught politics and cultural curiosity that surround the garment, there is a discussion worth having about the niqab, preferably including the voices of the women who wear it. But for the purposes of whether or not the niqab should be banned during the swearing of the citizenship oath by new Canadian citizens your opinion is of no applicability. Proponents of a ban might want to note that, according to public opinion surveys, a large majority of Canadians do indeed oppose the wearing of the niqab during the oath, but this is irrelevant unless you believe that the rights of individuals should be determined by majority rule, that the extent of minority rights are at the whim of the majority.

One’s rights are what is at issue here. And on that note it is fun to note that on Thursday morning, about nine hours before Stephen Harper made his declaration about a women’s sartorial freedom, the Conservatives announced that, if they continue to govern long enough to do so, they will have the federal government purchase John Diefenbaker’s childhood home and declare it a national historic site. Among the accomplishments the Conservatives recognized in explaining the reason for such an honour was Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, which acknowledged, among other rights, the freedom of religion. “It will give to Canadians the realization that wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour,” Diefenbaker said in 1960, “the Parliament of Canada will be jealous of his rights and will not infringe upon those rights.”

Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights was ultimately overtaken by Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and it is those Charter rights that are relevant (even if a Federal Court judge actually overturned the government’s policy on the niqab because he found it contradicted the Citizenship Act). As Zunera Ishaq‘s lawyers argue in their factum for the Federal Court of Appeal, “The impugned Policy forces the Respondent into an impossible choice: violate a sincerely held religious belief in a significant and material manner, or give up obtaining the Canadian citizenship that she is otherwise entitled to. And it forces this choice on her for no good reason.”

There are no practical justifications for the ban. Confirming an individual’s identity can be done privately before the oath ceremony. Confirming that an individual has said the oath—the practical consideration that Jason Kenney first claimed when he introduced his ban—can be done by having an official stand within earshot.

Jason Kenney has asserted that, based on his consultations, the wearing of a niqab is not properly grounded in religious theology. But we should surely not wish for a country in which ministers of the crown are the arbiters of what constitutes a proper expression of faith. The Supreme Court has set out parameters for legally recognized religious belief (in Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselem and R. v. N.S), and if the case of the niqab ban ever has to be adjudicated on Charter grounds the sincerity of Ishaq’s belief could be tested, but I might suggest that a decent and confident country should give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant unless the welfare of others or the country is somehow threatened.

In Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, the Supreme Court upheld a law that was being challenged on the grounds of religious freedom, but in that case the Court found a “pressing and substantial” goal—specifically, minimizing the potential for identity theft associated with driver’s licences. There is no such goal here. There is only symbolism.

Source: The niqab election – Macleans.ca

A timely reminder of Sikhs wearing turbans in the RCMP. Those who forget history …

The rhetoric over the niqab in the federal election campaign is proving reminiscent of another furor, more than 20 years ago, around the turban and its compatibility with Canadian values and the country’s dearest institutions.

What was allegedly at stake in that debate in the 1990s was the very fabric of the nation, and the sanctity and perhaps survival of an important historic symbol of the country — the Stetson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Baltej Singh Dhillon, a young practising Sikh, wanted to become a Mountie. But his application to the force led to a kind of turban turmoil and an eventual intervention in Parliament by the Progressive Conservative government of the day.

The debate was featured on newscasts and dominated the public conversation. Political parties took positions on it, including the Reform Party, which deemed allowing the right to wear a turban unnecessary, and went so far as to pass a resolution at its 1989 convention banning such religious attire for the RCMP. At the time, Stephen Harper was a defeated Reform candidate and the party’s policy chief.

Dhillon is now a staff sergeant in the RCMP. The force refused to allow him to speak to CBC News about the turban debate. But in a video story produced by Telus Optik in B.C. and posted online, Dhillon recalled the tone of the debate.

“It was vicious. It was angry. It was emotional. It had all the elements of racism in there. It was a disappointment is what it was,” he said in the video.

“The fear was that we would lose the symbols that defined Canadians and defined our culture and defined who we were and our branding with the rest of the world.”

“And that was the greatest irony: That on one hand, we need to protect our symbols, and in the same breath, we need you to not protect your faith or your religion or your roots.”

Source: Niqab debate recalls RCMP turban furor of the ’90s – Politics – CBC News

Lastly, Chantal Hébert on some of the debates that diverse societies will continue to have and the struggle for balance.

While her conclusion is right, the question is how to have such a discussion in an open and respectful fashion, not used as wedge politics but the Conservatives and Bloc:

And yet, under the guise of this discussion, voters are getting a taste of one of the fundamental debates of the 21st century. It revolves around how the increasingly diverse communities that make up pluralistic societies accommodate their cultural and religious differences and it is not going away after Oct. 19.

Source: Niqab debate leading to wider discussion on religious, cultural accommodation: Hébert | Toronto Star