This is part of a two-part series on the 2015 Canadian elections. To view the other article by Conor Healy, click here.
While the American presidential campaign is only just beginning, Canada’s longest federal campaign season since 1872 will draw to a close on Monday. This year’s controversially protracted federal campaign of a whopping 78 days seems a mere sprint in comparison to the campaign marathon south of the border. The election is a three-way race between the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper; the Liberal Party, headed by Justin Trudeau; and Thomas Muclair’s New Democratic Party, and debates among Canada’s main political leaders have run the gamut.
In the final stretch, though, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s agenda reeked of distraction and division. On Harper’s team is Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist and mastermind behind U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson’s campaigns. Notorious for his dog-whistle politics and his knack for identifying polarizing issues, Crosby’s hand in the Canadian election has been no less intrusive and influential, and his strategies as effective as ever.
In an article for the Telegraph, Johnson shared a tactic that he had learned from Crosby:
“Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.’ That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
A political stronghold in Canada for the past decade, the Conservatives have amassed their fair share of “issues of grief.” From the start of this campaign coinciding with the resumption of Harper-selected Senator Mike Duffy’s fraud and bribery trial to the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore—which directed attention to the government’s valuation of national security over the lives of Syrian refugees—Harper was on defense for the greater part of the campaign. After the announcement of Canada’s second consecutive quarter of negative economic growth, the prospects of the R-word added another strike against the Conservative government.
But with Crosby’s help, Harper was able to divert national attention elsewhere. On September 24, the third debate was held in Montréal, Québec. Unlike the previous debates, this one included Gilles Duceppe of the Quebec separatist party, the Bloc Québécois, and focused on key issues in Quebec, the second most populous province in Canada. The heated debate touched on economy, sovereignty, environment, and most notably, Harper’s dead cat: the niqab.
So where exactly did this cat come from and how did its death garner so much attention on the campaign trail?
In 2008, Zunera Ishaq immigrated to Ontario from Pakistan. Having worn a niqab since age 15, she was willing to lift her veil for identification purposes, but not for a public Canadian citizenship ceremony. In 2014, she challenged the policy that the government had implemented in 2011 that banned face coverings during citizenship ceremonies.
In February, a federal court judge ruled that the government’s policy contradicted the regulation requiring citizenship judges to “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” In response to the niqab court ruling, Harper stated, “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.” The government appealed the ruling to no avail and has decided to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Harper’s vested interests in this issue stretch beyond the courtroom—if elected, he insists on maintaining the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, and possibly extending this to public service officials.
What is truly “offensive” to Canadians is how politicians have rendered the niqab another leveraging instrument. Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Sonia Lesage told the Huffington Post Canada that the 2011 policy affects around 100 women each year. Given how few women this directly affects, it is evident that the niqab stands for more than a sartorial choice. Occurring within a specific historical context, this issue represents something much larger in Canadian politics.
Just two years ago, Quebec’s governing Parti Québécois proposed the Quebec Charter of Values, Bill 60. It sought to prohibit public-sector employees from sporting anything that would “overtly indicate a religious affiliation.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Quebec Minister Bernard Drainville, who had introduced the charter, explained the historical basis for such a law. He argued that since Quebec chose to become a secular state in the 1960s, separating Catholicism from the state, this charter would be “the logical extension … [for] if it was good for the Catholic Church in the 60s, it should be good for all religions today.”
Even if the bill could have stemmed from good intentions—maybe even so far as a step towards cohesion—the secular charter’s draconian measures would have infringed on the livelihood of certain minority groups. The bill died during Québec’s 2014 provincial election, and rightfully so.
Seeking: Dead Animal Removal
Fast forward to today and we are in trapped in replay mode.
In a country that celebrates multiculturalism and diversity, this trend of identity politics has eclipsed the national vision. Politicians have reduced the complexities of identity to single issues that sell to individual groups. By pandering to a specific group of Canadians with his dead cat, Harper has capitalized on dividing the nation.
Regarding the niqab, Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander claimed, “This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.” He also proposed a police tip line for citizens to report “incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada.”
If oppressed women are a priority for the Conservatives, then why not create a tip line for the missing and murdered aboriginal women that the Harper government has so largely ignored despite calls for an inquiry? And why preclude the empowerment associated with citizenship? This language coloured with racial and religious undertones accomplishes little besides marginalizing a faith community.
But Canadians do not need to buy into this rhetoric. Canada is a nation built on differences. Our national identity serves to unite, and not assimilate, individual identities. This election campaign has incited necessary conversation about the future of Canada’s identity, and the results will set us on the respective trajectory.
With such high stakes, Canadians need to remove this dead cat from the table and continue onwards. The niqab issue has led the campaign astray, and we need to find our way back in time for voting on Monday.
Image source: Flickr/Stephen Harper