September 25, 2015 / 1:45 AM / 3 years ago

Rivals accuse Canadian PM of pushing ban on veils to win votes

OTTAWA, Sept 24 (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 new expanded House of Commons, second only to Ontario. The Conservatives hold just five Quebec seats.

The minority separatist Bloc Quebecois party of Gilles Duceppe - trying to revive its fortunes after being crushed in the last election in 2011 - support 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 during a French-language debate in Montreal, Quebec’s biggest city.

“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,” he said.

Thomas Mulcair of the New Democrats said Harper was trying to hide his poor economic record behind a veil.

“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.

The government is taking its case for the ban to the Supreme Court after twice losing in lower courts.

The New Democrats unexpectedly swept most of Quebec in the 2011 election as the Bloc collapsed. The party has little chance of winning power federally for the first time unless it can hang onto its gains.

After Quebec came close to voting for secession in 1995, the then-Liberal federal government pushed through a law saying Ottawa would only allow a province to secede if a large majority of the population voted in favor.

Mulcair says a simple majority should be enough and this could open him up accusations that he would make it easier to break up Canada if he took power. Polls show Quebecers have little appetite for another referendum. (Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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