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Canada's veiled immigration problems

The case of a Muslim student removed from class for wearing a veil hints at the difficulty of integration.

Supporters of Canadian terror suspects arrive at court June 12, 2006 in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. (Simon Hayter/Getty Images)

TORONTO, Canada — In Europe and parts of North America, the image of a Muslim woman with a veiled face is increasingly the trigger for anxious debates about national identity.

In France, where the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools has already been banned, politicians are poised to outlaw the veil in public buildings and public transport. In Italy, cabinet ministers have vowed to do the same. And in Britain — where the embrace of multiculturalism is considered the polar opposite of France’s policy of assimilation — a top cabinet minister, Jack Straw, has spoken out firmly against the wearing of the niqab or burqa on British soil.

No surprise, then, that the issue hit the headlines last week in Canada, sparked by an incident in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec.

Naema Ahmed, a 29-year-old Egyptian, was attending a government-sponsored class in Montreal for immigrants who want to learn French. In the middle of writing an exam, she was pulled out of class by a provincial official, who gave her a stark choice — remove the veil or leave the class. Ahmed left.

Months earlier, Ahmed had been thrown out of another French class for the same reason.

“I feel like the government is following me everywhere,” Ahmed told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

There are no laws in Quebec that ban women from covering their faces with a veil. But in backing the actions of bureaucrats, Quebec’s immigration minister, Yolande James, made one up on the spot.

“There is no ambiguity on this question: If you want to [attend] our classes, if you want to integrate in Quebec society, here our values are that we want to see your face,” James said, adding that legislation to deal with similar incidents would soon be introduced.

The paradox, of course, is that Ahmed wanted to integrate by learning French. But the government, by banning her from classes, is pushing her to the margins of Quebec society.

“I'll just stay in my house,” Ahmed said. “This will solve the problem.”