An unprecedented and powerful use of symbolism in the 2015 election campaign that led to a riveting, highly emotional, and deeply divisive debate on values the likes of which has rarely been seen in national campaigns in Canada.
Technically, the Niqab Debate was over the mid-campaign announcement by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that it would appeal to the Supreme Court lower court rulings that overturned the Harper government’s law prohibiting women from wearing the face-covering niqab veil while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship.
But at its core, the Niqab Debate was not about anything quite so arcane as whether – literally – one or two women should be allowed to swear their allegiance to Canada without showing their faces.
It was about perceptions of Canada – how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen. Supporters of the government’s position saw the niqab as inherently anti-woman, and a medieval garment out of place in the 21st century. Some also equated the niqab with the larger global threat of jihadism and terrorism.
Opponents saw it as cynical pandering to prejudice, ignorance and outright racism – the type of “dog whistle” so common in contemporary American politics. While many felt uncomfortable with the niqab, and did consider it anti-woman, they felt far more uncomfortable with the notion of the government dictating acceptable norms of dress and – more importantly – of the precedent it would set for other types of intrusion.
The Niqab Debate didn’t happen overnight. Its antecedents were the decade and half of violence that followed the 9/11 attacks, up to and including two separate “lone wolf” murders of Canadian soldiers in the fall of 2014. All through this period, Quebeckers were dealing with their own perennial identity issues, with debates in the early part of this decade about the reasonable accommodation of Muslim citizens, culminating in the introduction of an ultimately nixed “Charter of Values” by the separatist PQ government of Pauline Marois.
All of this created a tinder box, ready for the spark of the Harper Supreme Court appeal. More oil was poured on by the government’s mid-campaign handling of the Syrian refugee crisis and its disastrous and (unintentionally) hilarious “Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline” gambit.
The full-throated, often ugly debate that ensued burned red-hot. Liberals and NDPers were cast in the awkward position of defending what some saw as fundamentally illiberal cultural practices. Harper cast himself in the unlikely role of champion of women’s rights.
The intensity of heat ensured that it would burn out well before Election Day. But the impacts were clear. The Conservatives’ playing with fire burned their bridges to ethnic groups in large metropolitan areas across Canada, which they had spent years assiduously and painstakingly building.
In Quebec, where the debate had burned longer and hotter than anywhere else, the consequences were more complicated. The NDP, which went into the election with three quarters of the seats in the province, was on the defensive all campaign on the issue, not just from the Conservatives, but from the Bloc Quebecois, seeking to reclaim its base. In fact, the BQ ran a bizarre anti-NDP commercial that strangely – but effectively – linked its opposition to pipelines and the niqab. On Election Day, the Tories would end up picking up a handful of seats in Quebec – perhaps because of the issue. Indeed, Quebec was the only province in which the party gained, as opposed to lost, seats.
Ultimately, in its broadest impact, the issue may have confirmed – for the vast majority of Canadians who polls consistently showed believed it was time for Harper to go – that the Conservatives were divisive, negative and had, in Justin Trudeau’s paraphrase of Franklin Roosevelt, “nothing to offer but fear itself.”
In contrast, Trudeau’s own opposition to Harper on the issue was consistent with his broader message of respect and inclusion. Time and again throughout the campaign Trudeau spoke of Canada’s strength not being in spite of, but because of the country’s diversity. The Niqab Debate was his proof point.
One would have to go back to the deeply divisive 1917 federal election, which openly pitted English and French Canada against each other, for a similarly emotional debate. The question now is whether 2015 was an anomaly or – given the example of bitter, ugly, xenophobic national elections in the US and Europe – a troubling preview of things to come.
Image Source: Flickr user David Dennis