Yesterday, after a "grueling 78-day long electoral race" (according to Huffington Post Canada), Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau was elected as our neighbor to the north's new prime minister. Over the course of the two-and-a-half months, it became clear that one issue would dominate the campaign: the right to religious freedoms, specifically the use of anti-Muslim fear mongering to appeal to voters' most basic fears.
For the last nine years, Canada has been led by Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, in a position he was campaigning to keep. Harper's reign as PM, however, was not without controversy, a fact highlighted by recent polls showing that almost two-thirds of Canadian voters were looking for a change in leadership. These controversies ranged from the lack of action on climate change, to his lackluster support for the United Nations, to his limited interactions with the press and public.
However, with the two opposition parties, the National Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, surging in the polls, Harper made the decision to lean into one issue specifically: his support for the law that forbade women from wearing a niqab (a face cover worn by some Muslims) during citizenship ceremonies. The law had been challenged in the courts and was overturned in September.
As Parker Donham of The Atlantic notes, "Harper pounced on the decision; his deputies promised an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and the prime minister hammered the issue during a September 24 French-language debate in Montreal, Quebec."
The Prime Minister defended his support for the ban in a debate in September this way: "When we join the Canadian family, we should not hide our identity. Never will I say to my daughter that a woman has to cover her face because she's a woman."
In a NY Times op-ed, Martin Patriquin, the Quebec bureau chief for Maclean's, describes Harper's focus on Muslim women in another way:
"Effectively, Mr. Harper hopes to win his fourth term on Oct. 19 in part by demonizing those few who wear the niqab -- and much of Canada's Muslim population by extension. In one particularly pungent mailing to voters, the Conservative Party suggested that the election of one of Mr. Harper's opponents would turn the country into a dystopia of high taxes, high unemployment and citizenship ceremonies clogged with covered Muslim faces pledging allegiance to the queen."
Trudeau, to his credit, made the decision to address Harper's nativism directly and with force. At an event in March of this year, Trudeau told supporters that "the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the 30s and 40s is being used to raise fears against Muslims today." He continued, "You can dislike the niqab-you can hold it up as a symbol of oppression, but those who would use the state's power to restrict women's religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn."
"One of the fears I have is that we have a government that is stoking fears and fomenting anxiety around Muslim Canadians by conflating fears about terrorism with fears about people who look different or sound different. That's the one things I'm really against."
"Fear is a dangerous thing. Once it is sanctioned by the state there is no telling where it might lead. It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty." (3/9/15)
Trudeau's victory speech last night drove his message home most directly when he told the story of a Muslim mother he met on the campaign trail who handed him her baby daughter:
"She said she's voting for us because she wants to make sure that her little girl has the right to make her own choices in life and that her government will protect those rights. To her I say this: You and your fellow citizens have chosen a new government -- a government that believes deeply in the diversity of this country...My friends, we beat fear with hope, we beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together."
For more about Harper's anti-Muslim tendencies, check out this hilarious piece from John Oliver's Last Week Tonight: