A defaced sign from last year’s municipal election in Toronto
It wasn’t that long ago that many people in the rest of Canada were expressing horror and disgust at attempts by the Quebec government to adopt a “Charter of Values” that was clearly motivated by a deep distrust of religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
Yet many of those same people are today cheering a similar anti-Muslim agenda from the federal Conservative Party, which has waged an expensive and pointless battle against a handful of women who wear the face-covering niqab. This week, Tory leader Stephen Harper is saying his party would consider upping the ante by legislating against the wearing of niqabs by civil servants, which, as impending threats go, is right up there with an avalanche in Saskatoon or a tsunami wiping out the West Edmonton Mall.
The Tories are playing the twin fiddles of fear and ignorance, the sound of which is all too familiar to Quebecers who thought we had silenced that dog whistle when the Parti Québécois’s lamentable Charter died with its minority government 18 months ago. Instead, the demonizing of a religion that represents 1.6 billion people around the world has taken on a new life in Canada thanks to Harper and his chorus of c-team Conservative candidates.
Just two years ago, Harper’s Minister for Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, had this to say about the Quebec Charter:
“At the federal level, we believe our job is to make all people who live in this country — regardless of their religious, ethnic, cultural background — feel welcome, feel part of our country, feel like this is a land of equality of opportunity. … We are very concerned by any proposal that would limit the ability of Canadians to participate in our society and that would affect the practice of their faith. And we are very concerned by any proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion, based on their deepest convictions.”
And the Tories said they were ready to go to court to defend those rights.
These days, they are going to court to take them away.
Kenney made this speech soon after he himself had issued an illegal directive that took away the opportunity for women like Zunera Ishaq to swear an oath of citizenship unless they removed their niqabs in a room full of men. Prior to that, the handful of niqabi women who took the citizenship oath each year had either been allowed to wear the face-covering during the oath-swearing, or the citizenship judge could organize a small side-ceremony where the veil was removed but no men were present.
The Tories have followed that up with other laws, directives and policies clearly aimed at fomenting fear and mistrust of Muslims, starting with Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-terrorism Act, and the ridiculous Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which outlaws things that are already illegal in Canada, such as honour killings and polygamy.
The Conservatives have even found an opportunity to engage in religious discrimination when it comes to refugees. While the world is struggling to deal with the largest wave of people displaced by violence since the Second World War, Harper’s minions first fudged the numbers of how many Syrian refugees we were accepting. When it was revealed that actual refugees accepted was just a fraction of the target totals, Harper blamed it on the need for an onerous screening process to keep out potential terrorists. When good-hearted Canadians across the country demanded we do more, the Tories suddenly discovered that, hey, maybe we can do this a lot faster.
But only if we exclude most Muslims from the pool of potential refugees. “Our focus is on bona fide refugees and, in particular, on vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities,” Harper told Zoomermedia. “These are the groups that are at risk and most need our help, both Muslim minorities and non-Muslim minorities. That’s where our focus has been.”
That dovetails with Harper’s blinkered view of the Syrian civil war, which he continually paints as one where “so-called ISIS” seems to be the only group doing the killing. Rarely do you hear him mention Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who Harper has said he has “no interest” in fighting. That’s the same Assad whose bombs and army, aided by the Russians, are doing 75 per cent of the killing of civilians in that country and are principally targeting the Sunni Muslim majority. The fact is that Syrians of all religious denominations are “at risk” in that country’s horrific civil war, and any attempt to filter refugee applicants by religion is not only a violation of international law, it’s an outrageous affront to basic human rights.
It wasn’t that long ago that people across the country were reacting with disgust that a modern Canadian government would use the tactics of fear and ignorance to try to win an election by targeting religious minorities. Some even went so far as to proclaim that the intolerance enshrined in the Charter of Values was somehow peculiar to Quebec, that nothing similar could happen in the good old land of Canadian Values.
It turns out, unfortunately, that this is one area where Quebec isn’t such a distinct society. In fact, current support for the Tories’ xenophobic agenda in the Rest of Canada lends credence to the beliefs of many Quebecers that denunciation of the Charter in the ROC was motivated in many cases more by racism against francophone Quebecers than support for religious minorities.
When it came time to vote, however, Quebecers were able to see beyond the narrow confines of the Charter debate and in April 2014 tossed out a government that had largely failed to respond to more pressing, practical and real-world concerns.
Will Canadians come to the same conclusion in October 2015? One can hope. One can even pray. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.