OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's two main opposition leaders accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an election debate on Thursday of trying to win votes by pushing a ban on Muslim women's face coverings during citizenship ceremonies.
Harper's Conservatives, locked in a tight race with the New Democrats and the Liberals ahead of an Oct. 19 election, say people wishing to become Canadians must show their faces.
Polls indicate the proposal is popular in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where there are long-standing tensions over how tolerant Quebecers should be toward the customs and traditions of immigrants.
Quebec accounts for 23 percent of the seats in the House of Commons, second only to Ontario. The Conservatives hold just five seats in Quebec, where Thursday's French-language debate took place.
The minority separatist Bloc Quebecois party of Gilles Duceppe - trying to revive its fortunes after being crushed in the last election in 2011 - supports Harper's idea.
Both main opposition parties say the ban violates the rights of Canadians, and accuse the Conservatives of fueling prejudice.
"Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe want to play on fear and division," Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said. "If a man can't dictate how a woman should dress, we can't have the state telling a woman how she shouldn't dress."
Duceppe questioned how it could be divisive when the Quebec legislature was unanimous on the issue, and 90 percent of Quebec citizens agreed on the ban.
Thomas Mulcair of the New Democrats said Harper was trying to hide his poor economic record behind a niqab.
"Mr. Mulcair, never, I will never say to my daughter that a woman must cover herself up because she is a woman," Harper shot back angrily.
Fireworks also erupted over the question of how easy it should be for Quebec to separate. Mulcair said it was "the fundamental rule of democracy" that one vote over 50 percent was enough.
Trudeau noted the New Democrats' rules require more than a simple majority of members to change the party's name in its constitution.
"But to tear Canada’s constitution in half, he claims that a single vote would be enough," he said.
Quebec came within one percentage point of splitting in a 1995 referendum but the Supreme Court subsequently stated that secession would require a "clear majority".
Leger pollster Christian Bourque said he saw no knockout blows in the debate but said the niqab issue played into Harper's favor.
Reporting by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait