Niqab issue is a ‘red herring’ this election, says Green candidate

The Yukon's Liberal, NDP, and Green Party candidates spent much of the most recent federal campaign forum agreeing with each other on women's rights and gender equality.

The Yukon’s Liberal, NDP, and Green Party candidates spent much of the most recent federal campaign forum agreeing with each other on women’s rights and gender equality.

NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson, Green candidate Frank de Jong and Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell all attended the forum on Thursday evening, which was organized by the Yukon Status of Women Council, the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, les EssentiElles and White Ribbon Yukon.

Conservative incumbent Ryan Leef said he did not attend due to a family matter.

All three candidates promised to launch an inquiry for missing and murdered aboriginal women.

All three also promised to provide more affordable child care – Atkinson through the NDP’s $15-a-day national child care program, Bagnell with the Liberal Party’s social infrastructure fund, and de Jong by providing tax breaks to employers and institutions that provide child care themselves.

And all three responded with one voice to a question from former NDP Party Leader Audrey McLaughlin about allowing Muslim women to wear niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is against allowing women to wear the niqab, which hides most of a person’s face, during the ceremonies. The issue has rapidly become a central focus of this election campaign.

“It’s a red herring… that Harper is using to throw red meat to his base,” de Jong said. “As soon as we start setting a dress code for Canadians, we’re lost.”

Bagnell’s response: “Ditto.”

Atkinson said the issue resonated with her as the only female candidate in the Yukon. “I dare someone to tell me what to wear.”

The three candidates also agreed to address poverty among seniors, many of whom are women. Bagnell promised funding for affordable seniors’ housing, and to renegotiate the Canada Pension Plan with the provinces. Both he and Atkinson said their parties would bring the retirement age back down from 67 to 65. Atkinson also promised to increase the guaranteed income supplement.

For his part, de Jong said the Green Party would mandate a guaranteed annual income for all workers, which he said would help reduce poverty at all ages.

“It is government policy to have poverty as part of our society,” he said. “If we decided to have government policy that we wouldn’t have poverty, we wouldn’t have poverty. It’s that simple.”

If anyone, it was de Jong who stood out most at this forum, largely for his focus on legislation. Asked about how to achieve pay equity between men and women, de Jong said the solution is to write it into law.

“You don’t wait around and ask politely to businesses and industry and government to do this. You legislate it,” he said.

He also suggested implementing quotas for women on company boards.

Atkinson pointed out that the NDP currently has 147 female candidates, more than any of the other federal parties.

Another question focused on how to promote opportunities for women with disabilities. Again, de Jong said the answer is legislation.

“Everyone says, ‘Well, we shouldn’t start legislating and getting quotas,’ but that’s the only way to do it,” he argued.

Bagnell took a different approach, saying the Liberal Party would implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and would modify the labour code to allow women with disabilities to work from home and to work flexible hours.

Overall, though, it was an event largely free of debate or discord.

And perhaps the most a propos question of the evening came from Angela Code, an outreach coordinator with BYTE – Empowering Youth and a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation in northern Manitoba.

“I don’t want the Conservative government in power,” she told the candidates. “I agree with a lot of what you stand for, but what I’m really afraid of is a split vote. What do you guys feel about that?”

To that, none of the candidates had a clear response. But Bagnell did say the Liberal and NDP leaders are committed to bringing down a Conservative minority government through a non-confidence vote.

Code recently attended the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit as a youth representative. She told the News that the experience made her believe that Canada needs a change in leadership.

“In the time that the Conservative government has been in power, we’ve been kind of spinning our wheels,” she said.

But she worries that the three alternative parties haven’t differentiated themselves enough.

“I see so many similarities between the NDP, Liberals, and the Greens that I am concerned that it’s going to be so split and the Conservative Party will get in again,” she said. “I just wish that there was one clear answer. Right at this moment, it’s not clear to me.”

Contact Maura Forrest at