When I think Canada, I think nice things like overly polite people, colorful money and Tim Hortons coffee shops on every corner. (Canadians apparently love Tim Hortons!)
But it appears that Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to change all that. In the run-up to today’s election, he’s been doing all he can so that when people think Canada, they think anti-Muslim bigotry. (Or maybe American conservative politicians are franchising their anti-Muslim political tactics to Harper in exchange for Tim Hortons recently opening up U.S. locations.)
So what made Harper transform from a mild-mannered guy who looks like a Midwestern high school guidance counselor to a guy stoking the flames of hate versus Muslims? Well, the same reason U.S. conservative politicians do it: They think it will help win elections. This isn’t rocket science, folks.
In Harper’s case, he’s locked in a tight race for reelection after 10 years of leading Canada’s government. Typically, an incumbent runs on his or her record, unless of course that record sucks. And in Harper’s case, his record sucks big time, at least when it comes to the economy.
Canada is now is officially in a recession after its economy contracted for the last two quarters, in great part due to the drop in oil prices. Unemployment has crept up to 7.1 percent and the Canadian dollar is only worth about 75 cents to the U.S. dollar, the lowest rate in 11 years, which means many consumer goods are more expensive.
So if you are a politician seeking reelection in those economic conditions, what do you do? Distraction time! Get voters to forget your failings by scaring them about another issue.
Enter the Muslims! Harper latched on to a recent Canadian court decision involving a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan who wanted to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen while wearing a niqab, which is the veil that covers the face and exposes only the eyes. In 2011, Harper’s immigration minister had issued a federal regulation prohibiting women from wearing the veil when being sworn as citizens.
Hmm, conservative politicians trying to control women—where have I heard that before?
Well, this Pakistani woman filed a lawsuit in essence declaring that her religious liberty was being denied by compelling her to uncover her face in a mixed-gender crowd. Now, I know some will ask: How can you tell if the right person is being sworn in if the face is covered? Fair question, but the woman had no issue with removing her veil in front of a female government employee to confirm her identity, and in fact had done that when taking the citizenship test. She just didn’t want to remove the veil in mixed company.
In February, the lower court struck down the regulation, finding that it violated the religious freedom guaranteed to those taking the citizenship oath. Harper, however, appealed the decision, turning this issue into a political spectacle.
And then in September, only about a month before Canada’s election, an appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling striking the regulation.
Harper, seeing that more than 72 percent of Canadians support the niqab ban, then really upped the ante on the issue. He not only pledged to appeal the decision to Canada’s highest court, but just last week Harper doubled down, announcing he was considering prohibiting public employees from wearing niqabs.
In reality the niqab is not a significant issue for Canadians, not even for Canadian Muslims, who total about 1 million people, or 2 to 3 percent of Canada’s population. As Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, explained to me, “Since 2011, there have been literally two women out of over the 650,000 people sworn in as Canadian citizens who wore a niqab.”
The reaction to Harper making the niqab issue a central part of his campaign has elicited a range of reactions. His anti-Muslim rhetoric unsurprisingly fired up his conservative base. Paging Doctor Carson, Doctor Ben Carson.
It has also inspired comedy at Harper’s expense. CBC TV’s The Rick Mercer Report recently aired a stinging comedic takedown of Harper on this issue. The sketch, titled “Distraction,” features a Canadian couple praising Harper, with the wife stating, “I'm very concerned about the niqab issue. Plus it takes my mind off the hopelessness of my job search.” Her husband then adds, “I’ve never actually see a niqab in real life but I’d rather talk about one of those than the 75-cent Canadian dollar.”
But more alarmingly, the anti-niqab rhetoric has resulted in a spike in hate crimes against Canadian Muslims. Gardee noted that “half of the reported hate crimes versus Muslims in 2015 have come in the last month, which is the exact time frame Harper ramped up his anti-niqab rhetoric.”
Thankfully, the two parties running closest to Harper in the polls, the Liberal Party, headed by Justin Trudeau (son of the late former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau), and the New Democratic Party, topped by Thomas Mulcair, oppose the niqab ban, viewing it as religious liberty that should be protected. That's truly a profile in political courage given the overwhelming support for the niqab ban. In contrast, in the United States when Republicans from Ben Carson to state representatives demonize Muslims, in general we hear silence or at best a muted response from the leading Democrats.
The latest polls have the race too close to call, although some now show Trudeau with a small lead. Hopefully the results of Monday’s election will mean that when we think of Canada, it will still conjure up nice things, not ugly anti-Muslim bigotry like we have seen from Republicans in the United States. Canadians truly need to remain better than that.