In the last few weeks of the election campaign, the Prime Minister spoke about the Liberals and the NDP being “out of step” with Canadians on the question of banning the niqab at formal citizenship ceremonies. Indeed, recent polling found that 82 percent of Canadians were in favour of a ban, while only 15 percent opposed it. But what must be kept in mind is the origin of this “issue,” which has solely been created over the past few years by the Conservative Party as they ordered the ban changing pre-existing practice which permitted the wearing of niqabs or burkas at these ceremonies.
In striving so fervently to highlight the differences between “us” and “them,” that wearing a veil during a ceremony might not be “how we do things here,” Harper is, once again, “running afoul” of the Constitution, and contradicting the progressive values of his supposed Tory forebears. However, this nationalist rhetoric seeking to draw distinct battle-lines around what is culturally acceptable in Canada, has reached a new fever-pitch over the course of the election campaign.
The latest example of which seems to be the admission that a re-elected Conservative government would examine legislation banning public servants from wearing the niqab, as well as pledging to create an RCMP tip line for people to report “barbaric cultural practices.” Before that we had Harper referring explicitly to mosques as places of radicalization, and of course, the absurd call from the Senate this summer to create an “Imam Registry.”
All of this, following the passage of C-51 and our national shift to losing our minds over national security, has resulted in an apparent ballooning conception of how large the “threat” that radical jihadist terrorism poses to Canada actually is, despite CSIS itself noting that white supremacists actually account for more of the lone wolf attacks that we appear to be concerned with currently.
The exaggeration of perceptions is also apparent in how Canadians view the Muslim community as a part of the Canadian society too, with a recent poll asking Canadians how many Muslims there were in Canada, the average guess was that Canada’s population was roughly 20% Muslim. In fact, the actual figure is closer to 2%! All this is to say, that the disproportionate amount of ink being spilled on this issue (and I am just the latest offender) is simply in keeping with current trends in Canadian popular discourse regarding Muslims in Canada.
And yes, we are well aware at how much of a distraction the Niqab issue is, how it is an attempt to make the electorate look the other way as the Canadian economy slumps into a “technical recession” with falling oil prices, and numerous unemployed Canadians looking for answers from their leaders. And as Rick Mercer himself stated in a recent rant, all those issues got “out of the way” earlier in this marathon of an election, and we’ve now settled on the niqab as a defining issue of the election.
This sort of nationalist politicking smacks of hypocrisy, indeed the national support for it, fairly reeks of two-facedness on the part of Canadians across the country. I am of course talking about how English Canada essentially tripped over itself to attack Pauline Marois’ doomed Quebec Charter of Values during the last Quebec election. So where are those voices now that are dabbling with nationalist politics for quick electoral gain?
Where is Jason Kenney, who was so quick to slam the Charter of Values, and made reference to it being at odds with Quebec’s “best values” and that it was “counterproductive” to creating a harmonious Canada”? Oh, that’s right, he’s been busy tweeting misleading images of Muslim women in chains, and defending his party’s valiant stand against the “medieval, tribal custom” of the niqab. One could only hope that the Conservatives’ blatant election time nationalist side-show would be as doomed to irrelevance as the PQ’s, but as mentioned above, the polls are not showing that.
But here’s the thing, this sort of rhetoric isn’t just “distracting,” “embarrassing” or even simply “racist and xenophobic,” although it is indeed all of those things. It is also extremely dangerous, and it is a dangerous road that we, Canadians, seek to go down if we follow this path. The fact that since 2011 only two women have been refused citizenship on these grounds, would truly seem to indicate that as Andrew Coyne puts it, to continue to permit the niqab at citizenship ceremonies as was previously acceptable, would be an “infinitesimal concession,” to a group that is currently feeling itself harried on all sides in Canada.
One finds it difficult to take it at face value when the government claims alternatively that this is protecting “Canadian values” or is a matter of security. It is very hard to see how two veiled women in four years has any bearing on Canadian security, and indeed, the rhetoric surrounding this seems to have made Canadians less safe. By this, of course, I am talking about Islamophobic attacks, which have been on the rise in Canada over the past few years.
And even just these past few weeks alone, we have heard reports of two separate Muslim women, wearing the visible signs of their faith, attacked. One in Montreal and one in Toronto. This brings to mind a comparison, our politicians are not the only ones playing dangerous nationalist politics. One needs only look to our neighbour to the south, where following Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s repeated vitriolic attacks on Hispanic immigrants, there have been growing cases of attacks on minorities, with some of the attackers citing Trump’s words as inspiration. While many are willing to laugh off Trump’s run for president and his outlandish style and statements, his voice is finding ready ears.
Our leaders play a dangerous game when they seek to paint minorities woven within the fabric of our society as a purported “fifth column,” undermining our values and securities, and for those of us who scoffed at such a crass and base political move many months ago, we are now watching in horror as public opinion polls indicate that this, of all the issues in this overlong political circus we call an election, has found resonance with voters. The Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois may almost certainly win some seats on the basis of this issue, but what will be the cost?
Further, and more related to the national security concern that the current government seems so desperate to wed these “cultural values” issues to, this is directly impeding our ability as a country to effectively combat violent Islamic extremism. In effect, what we are doing is singling out and alienating the one group that should be our most valuable partners and allies in combating radical Islamic jihadism and groups such as the Islamic State. From a purely Machiavellian point of view, the government’s words and actions on this front are irresponsible and counter-productive, if we wish to competently fight this war.
The Prime Minister seems to legitimately want to stop terrorism in Canada, and I believe that he believes that he is taking the measures necessary to safeguard our population. However, it becomes a question of whether he wants to do this effectively, without such sensationalist electioneering and also without creating the conditions that leads to radicalization among individuals. In 2011, Harper gave Canadians a choice between the economy and the environment, in 2015, with the oil-prices slumping and a “technical” recession, it seems that the economy is out, and national security and Canadian values are in, and it is colouring everything to our electoral discourse to our approach to Syrian refugees. But when we marry the concept of national security to social policy that singles out a group in our society, the results can be startlingly dangerous, and we may not like what we find out about ourselves as a nation.
We know our leaders are supposed to inspire us to greatness, but we must never forget that they have the capacity to inspire more dangerous emotions too. On October 19, Canadians need to decide what sort of Canada we desire in the future. Even more than just this election however, in the coming months and years Canadians will have to come to grips with our diverse population, and how we wish to treat one another.
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George Stairs is a second year M.A. candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written on various conflicts before, including extensive research and writing on the possibility of instability in the Middle-East arising from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Featured Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts.