The actions of the main political players in Canada’s 42nd elections provides lessons that can instill both hope and fear for many parts of the world. The most important of the lessons stems from the appalling attempt by the former governing Conservative Part led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet to engage in xenophobic language and actions to drive voters away from the opposition parties. The focus of these politicians seemed to literally politically hunt one solitary woman who wanted to wear her niqab at the citizenship swearing ceremony after she had dutifully taken it off to identify herself in private. Only one other woman had sought the same desire. This was followed up with some of the most senior Cabinet ministers announcing a snitch line for Canadians to inform on “barbaric cultural practices”. These same actors promoted the fact that a poll commissioned by Harper’s own Privy Council indicated that the majority of Canadians may have supported the government on the niqab issue. It was never clear whether those polled were aware that had taken off the face covering prior to the ceremony to be properly identified.
The fact that the voters ultimately gave Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party a large majority with substantial seats across the country may have indicated the government failed in their late attempt to ride back to power on the backs of thinly disguised race-baiting. Yet, drilling down into the election results, the Conservative strategy partly succeeded at least in Quebec in parts where there was a dominant francophone population. In these ridings, where there are not many and in some cases, not any, Muslims or people from other cultures, the Conservative campaign played into what are often the catalysts of incipient racism and xenophobia, namely fear of loss of identity and suspicion of the “different other”. The French policy of secularism imported into francophone Quebec also played a part.
The vast majority of Canadians, including Quebecers, are decent and tolerant peoples who are more accepting of diversity than almost any other nation on earth. But irresponsible political leaders attempted to drive a large hole into that precious quality of respect for diversity that Canada gives to the world. The campaign of Stephen Harper partially succeeded in that. It massively rebounded on him and his party due the fact that it wounded the NDP and its leader who courageously stuck to his principles and stood by the fundamental right of the solitary women to wear her niqab at the citizenship ceremony as long she had shown her identity without the face covering beforehand. The demise of the NDP in Quebec due to the xenophobic strategy of the Conservatives led the majority of progressive voters to swing massively to the Liberals as the main hope of ousting the Harper government. The majority Liberal government will no doubt bury the barely disguised xenophobic proposals and actions of the Harper government. However, what limited success those proposals and actions had in Quebec is deeply troubling not only for Canada, but I suggest for many parts of our troubled world. There are growing number of examples in Europe of similar attempts by usually far right politicians to use various forms of xenophobia to make inroads into main stream and sometimes even traditionally progressive parties.
The snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices” promoted by former two senior Conservative cabinet ministers is coded language for voters to feel that some are less Canadian than others and are incompatible with our values. The need to have effective laws and policies to combat actions that are oppressive of women and indeed already illegal under our criminal laws are not the real aims of the coded language. We have seen examples of such coded language, symbols and electoral xenophobia even in the most advanced European societies. These include the ‘minaret missile’ posters of the anti-immigrant Swiss Peoples’ Party and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s defence of “Christian Values” in Europe justifying walls to keep out Muslim and other refugees. Other European parties that have used similar language and symbols include Germany’s anti-Muslim Pegida movement that reached 10% of the Dresden mayoral vote, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party that recently obtained the second highest number of seats in the Danish Parliament, the anti-Muslim Party for Freedom in the Netherlands that became the third largest party in 2010 and the Freedom Party in Austria that mocked women in Islamic dress as “female ninjas”. Finally, we have a potential US Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, claiming that Mexico is sending “rapists and drug runners” across the US border.
The Canadian commitment to diversity and multiculturalism has had its opponents, especially among some in Quebec who promoted the infamous Charter of Values. Multiculturalism sadly has also been criticized even by leading progressive European leaders such as Angela Merkel and David Cameron. With such substantial and growing western opposition, it is critical that Canada, the early leader with its 1971 Multiculturalism Act enacted by Pierre Trudeau, continue to be the global champion and defender against the assault by xenophobic language and symbols as was attempted by the Harper Conservatives. In the aftermath of the election of the majority Liberal government, actions and laws must demonstrate to quote our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “we are stronger not in spite of our diversity, but because of it”. Those who undermine the precious quality of Canadian peaceful multiculturalism fail to understand how important a symbol it is for the equal citizenship of all Canadians while they remain free within the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to demonstrate their different uniqueness. This is especially important while our European allies fail to understand the dangers of coded language and symbols in their increasingly diverse societies.
Language and symbols as much as guns and bullets can cause great damage to any society and pose the greatest dangers to those in democratic societies whose very guarantees of freedom of expression can be used by those who may want to gain power by scapegoating and vilifying the minorities who are part of their increasingly diverse societies. Canada must stand as a global template as to how to resist this growing trend, not only in Europe and the US, but increasingly around the rest of the world.
The combating of xenophobic language and symbols is personal to this writer. After almost immediately graduating first in his law school in the late 1970s, I decided to leave Great Britain for the shelter of Pierre Trudeau’s just society with its new Multiculturalism Law. The failure of many British leaders and citizens to take on the increasing xenophobic language of politicians such as Conservative MP Enoch Powell and others who spoke of “rivers of blood” resulting from increased immigration by visible minorities cemented my decision. Now, like the vast majority of Canadians and their leaders, the desire is to make this country the most influential global template of peaceful diversity.
Errol Mendes is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa, Editor-in-Chief of the National Journal of Constitutional Law and co-editor of the landmark 2014 text titled “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” published by LexisNexis.