With just a week to go in Canada's Federal elections, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been roundly accused of racism and dog-whistle politics in order to draw attention away from the failings of his administration. Next Monday he will know if his tactics have worked.

Call it dog-whistle or wedge politics, it is ugly, racist and alive and kicking in the Canadian election campaign.

During the last weeks Conservative leader Stephen Harper has seen his majority threatened by the Liberals and he’s opted for the dog whistle.

When a politician does this it is to draw attention away from realities including, as in Harper’s case, a sluggish economy with two quarters of negative growth, a scandal plagued Senate (which he added to instead of abolish as promised), an indifference to the refugee crisis out of Syria, a massive drop in prices for oil from the dirty tar sands of Alberta, a continued red light from the US for the Keystone oil pipeline, the dismantling of social programmes that do not fit with his ideologies, and repeated refusal to launch an inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Canadians are being sucked into what Boris Johnson once termed the “dead cat strategy”.

When faced with a losing argument politicians distract. As the London mayor argues throwing a dead cat on a table quickly changes the focus of those sitting at said table.

Harper’s dead cat is the niqab, and by association, Muslims.

That’s right. The niqab.

The government recently tried to ban Muslim women who wear the niqab from doing so while taking the oath of citizenship, but the Federal Court of Appeal ruled against Harper not once, but three times.

The last ruling dismissed the government’s attempts in a ruling which stated Ottawa did not even come close to proving there would be “irreparable harm” if Zunera Ishaq (the woman who challenged the government) wore her niqab while taking her oath.

And to all those who believe a person’s face should be identifiable, it is verified by officials prior to the oath taking, and Ishaq is quite clear on her responsibility to remove her niqab for security reasons or for government ID.

On October 9 Ishaq swore her oath and the sky did not fall in.

But the lead up to her victory has had some nasty consequences with violence - verbal and physical, being directed at those who wear the niqab.

Two women in Montreal and one in Toronto have been attacked in the street, one of them who was pregnant was knocked to the ground.

Were the men involved in trying to rip the niqabs from these women liberating them by assaulting them?

Is this Harper’s so called society of “openness and equality”, as he told the CBC last week?

Harper has added fuel to this debate by saying his Conservative party is now looking at banning face coverings in the public service, and setting up a hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices”.

What is obvious is that is a euphemism for the Muslim community and the message is their practices are so dangerous they have to have a separate snitchline designed just for their ‘practices’.

If he is talking so-called honour killings or female genital mutilation there are already perfectly solid laws against them in Canada’s existing criminal code. They are murder and assault and are already dealt with under the one law for all principle of any proper democracy.

Canadians already have a Crime Stoppers line they can call if they suspect a crime is or has been committed.

They do not need a snitchline to report people based on the politics of fear and racism employed by this Prime Minister in order to win a few more votes.     

Harper has deliberately spoken of ‘old stock Canadians‘ - more the white Christian variety than the actually ‘older’ First Nations people; he talks tough about ‘stripping terrorists of their citizenship‘ - thereby creating two levels of citizenship; he hints at selecting refugees based on their religion rather than need, not that many refugees have been accepted anyway.

These are messages designed to appeal to a certain faction of the electorate - the one that is ready to wrap itself in the flag and be convinced by a phantom menace conjured up by an administration that is willing to divide communities if that is the price of winning.

The truth is a Canadian is much more likely to be killed by a moose than a terrorist but facts are dispensable at such a critical stage of fighting to stay in 22 Sussex Drive.

The role of democratically elected governments is to protect citizens, not foster their fears of others for partisan purposes.

Surely there are some votes that are just too costly.

Should religion be used a a code for ‘other’, for ‘not us’, for justifying resentment?

Harper considers the niqab to be “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”, yet the woman who fought him in the courts says she is educated and not oppressed, that she made the choice to wear her niqab when she was 15, much to the astonishment of her parents and siblings in Pakistan.

It is true that women in countries such as Saudi Arabia and parts of Afghanistan are forced by men to wear the niqab or the burka, and if Harper wants to crusade for them, bring it on.

The reality is he is not interested in them. He is using them and disingenuously transposing their ‘oppression’ onto the very few Muslim women in Canada who cover their heads, and sometimes part of their faces.

As a professor of Middle Eastern Studies recently pointed out, Mr Harper seemed to have no problem when the men in the Vatican directed Mrs Harper to cover her head when she met the Pope.


(Canadians vote on October 19 and the latest polls indicate the Conservatives to be trailing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party with the official opposition NDP in 3rd place. Canada however has a First Past the Post system and Harper’s majority government has just 39% of the vote) 

Comments (7)

by John Egan on October 13, 2015
John Egan

Thanks for writing about the Canadian election. It’s been remarkable in a number of ways:

Long: Harper called an 11 week campaign, hoping his opponents run out of money with the extra 5 weeks. Hasn’t worked, in fact.

Vote split: even though it looks like the Liberals have moved ahead, for much of the campaign three parties were in a dead heat for support. 

Expat voting: Harper chose to begin enforcing (and then defending in court) a 1993 law excluding ex-pats from voting in federal elections after 5 years absence. In fact, this his mobilised this group and surfaced two loopholes: you can run for parliament even as an expat, and expats willing to travel to their previous constituency during the advance polls or on election day itself can still vote. Looks like thousands will (mostly US-based), many of whom to vote against Harper. The Liberals and NDP both pledge to make the vote available to all Canadian citizens—including expats—if they form government.

Bloc Québécois: After being hammered in 2011, their former leader came back a few months ago. Gilles Duceppe’s return had no impact on the campaign—until he joined Harper in using the niqab as a dogwhistle issue in Québec. And it’s worked, with the NDP losing support massively (polling for the NDP in Québec dropped from upwards of around 45% to 30% in a week). Many progressive in Québec are furious with Duceppe: he may win a few seats; he may also cause vote splits that give seats to Harper.

This is the ugliest campaign in Canada in my lifetime. My friends and family back home are all rather sick of it. But mostly they’re sick of Harper.  His base is loyal, but swing voters have had a gutful. I hope. 

by Murray Grimwood on October 13, 2015
Murray Grimwood

Two quarters of negative growth, Jane?

Talk about chant the mantra.

Canada is a resource/energy problem. It has a vast quantity of very low grade energy. No matter that the planet is just about down to that grade as the best remaining option; we can't 'afford' it as a society. It doesn't deliver.

So Canada from here on will be a boom/bust/boom/bust/crash economy, in the conventional sense. Those who put up the capex for tar-sand extraction will never recoup unless it's via Weimar-style inflation.

They do have the luxury of less people per square whatever - but there, as here, people aren't having the real conversation. It's all like the post above - about people and relationships; not about the pressures which create them. Ask why Saudis and others adjacent, went to no-interest loans? Lack of resources to underwrite exponential growth, is why. Sand and rocks don't do it.

Canadian politicians, like thos everywhere, are stuck between a rock and an increasingly hard place; they have to promise hope, but there is no longer the underwrite to deliver. So they become the target for resentment, get rolled, and the new promiser of hope takes the podium. We just aren't smart enough to identify and address what we're doing, or at least, to take appropriate action.

And - energy being the underwrite of wealth - we will continue to see energy-company-funded 'politics' in resource-carring countries. Propaganda, in other words.

by Andrew Geddis on October 13, 2015
Andrew Geddis

There is a good summary of the Ishaq case here.

The Conservatives also are promising to introduce "a tip line for 'barbaric cultural practices'", following up on their enactment of the "Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act" earlier this year. That legislation prohibited a lot of things already prohibited under Canadian law ... but which just happened to be associated with the Muslim community.

It also is no coincidence that the Conservatives' best hope for retaining a majority government (because if they don't, there's no way the Liberals/NDP will prop them up in a minority government) lies in picking up seats in Quebec - which is the least friendly region to Muslim Canadians in the country.

by John Egan on October 13, 2015
John Egan

Have you spent much time in Québec? I have. I wouldn’t agree with that assessment. They are, however, firmly within the Napoleonic “tradition” in terms of secular values. Like most Canadians in other regions they find the niqb confronting. You’ll find as many Albertans seeeing this as a ballot question as Quebeckers.  

by Andrew Geddis on October 13, 2015
Andrew Geddis


The Macleans article I linked to stated:

In 2009, Angus Reid found that 68 per cent of Quebecers held an unfavourable opinion of Islam. Asked the same question [in 2013], the Quebec result was pretty much level, at 69 per cent.

But in the rest of Canada, where 46 per cent held an unfavourable view of Islam in 2009, that figure has risen sharply to 54 per cent [in 2013].

Hence, my claim it is the "least friendly" province to Muslim Canadians.  I then based my assessment of the reasons for Harper's policy positions on commentary like this:

The Conservatives' emphasis on the defence of what they call "Canadian values" is credited by pollsters with a significant uptick in their support, particularly in Quebec.

And it's not a risky strategy: a poll done by the Privy Council Office in March of this year, paid for by taxpayers, found 82 per cent of Canadians in support of the Conservatives' bid to ban the wearing of a niqab at citizenship ceremonies. In Quebec, that number was even higher — 93 per cent.

by Moz on October 14, 2015

hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices”.

There are times I wish I was in Canada. I do hope someone starts a campaign to report persecution of indigenous canadians to the hotline. I would love to see half of the calls be complaints that police are harassing "real canadians".

Although I have yet to see any reports of a similar campaign in Australia using the "if you see something say something" hotline, despite numerous claims on facebook to have used it in that way. When I did they took my report but claimed they didn't have incident numbers or anything, if I wanted that or progress reports I should report the incident to the perpetrators instead.

by Judy on October 16, 2015

by John Egan on October 13, 2015 "This is the ugliest campaign in Canada in my lifetime. My friends and family back home are all rather sick of it. But mostly they’re sick of Harper.  His base is loyal, but swing voters have had a gutful. I hope."

And I just discovered that Linton Crosby is helping Harper with his campaign...

 Says everything really.

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