Understanding the ‘footprint’ of the niqab issue

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday March 18 2015 in Opinion
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It is safe to say that most leaders, especially in the western world, and certainly in North America, make statements – especially controversial statements – that have been well researched and polled on potential public reaction. So, if you are prime minister, and you want to send a message or make a statement that you think would polarize opinions, but has the tendency to trigger a response that you hope will achieve the ends that you want, then you get your minions to put a poll in the field.


Rarely do leaders make a mistake in what they say and what they mean. In Canada, political leaders are rarely caught in that trap these days. Errors spoken can lead to dire consequences. Or, to put it another way, what they say will have considerable impact – one way or another.


So, a few years ago, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced changes to the Canadian citizenship rules. Apart from knowledge of at least one of the official languages, a better knowledge of Canada and its history, and so on, those who swear the oath of allegiance must not only be heard reciting the oath, but must be seen doing so. The consequence of not doing so would mean that citizenship would not be granted.


That presented a problem for one particular group – some Muslim women whose religious belief or practice requires them to wear a niqab in mixed presence.


Fast forward to now. Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes a statement that is so provocative that a month later is causing consternation by observers as to “why this, and why now?”


As I wrote in my February 18 column, Harper said: “I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.”


One would have expected that the Prime Minister would somehow back away from that statement. No, he didn’t. Instead, in a response to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Harper is quoted as saying: “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time (during citizenship ceremonies) that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”


How does the Prime Minister separate the culture of the Roman Catholic Church which refuses to open the priesthood to women? There could never be a woman to head the Church as a pope, which is elected by an all-male College of Cardinals, whose membership is elevated from all-male bishops…and so on down the line. Would he give the same brand – anti-women – to the Roman Catholic Church?


One could get into a deeply philosophical discussion about the influence of religion on culture, or culture on religion. I won’t do that here, but suffice it to say that they do have a connection. Therefore, to classify, as the Prime Minister does, that the culture that requires the wearing of a niqab is “anti-women” is flatly discriminatory, possibly racist.


It is somewhat frightening that the Prime Minister would go there. Considering the outcome and continuing memories of the Japanese Canadian internment, one would think that any government would take great care in attaching stereotypes. How does one not go on to make the leap, based on this authoritative observation, that a religion or culture that mandates modesty is “anti-woman”.


In the case of Japanese Canadians they were declared “enemy aliens”, based solely on their ethnicity, and sent to internment camps and their property seized.


So, what would be the intent of the Prime Minister’s position? For one, it could very well be a way to justify his government reluctance to allow more Syrian and other refugees into Canada. Build up enough anti-Muslim sentiment.


Bill C-51, the proposed legislation to “upgrade” Canadian security, is on its way to doing that. If passed, it would give the security services more power to, in effect, place all Muslims in the “jihadist” camp – the target of closer scrutiny, not unlike “carding” of members of the Black community by Toronto Police Service.


It is no secret that the Conservative Party, and the current government in particular, has done nothing that can be construed as supportive of the African Canadian community. Well, I haven’t seen it. Our concerns have not registered on its radar, with the possible exception of wanting to make prison sentences more severe, such as mandatory minimum sentences. While it does not refer specifically to African Canadians, the result will most likely affect African Canadians most significantly, given the experiences in our justice system.


The elimination of the long-form of the Census has repercussions in that the resulting statistical data fails to dig deeper into the condition of people of African descent in Canada, and therefore the need to develop programs that service those needs would not be justified.


So, the march towards an equitable Canada appears to have not only come to a standstill, it would seem, under current government policies, to be reversing. What would be next? Would another Harper administration begin tampering with human rights legislation? That may not be as far-fetched as you might think. The decision to appeal the niqab ruling – which overturned the ban on niqab during citizenship ceremonies – seems to point in that direction.


Email: patrick.hunter11@gmail.com / Twitter: @pghntr

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