Stephen Harper and the niqab gambit

How Stephen Harper is betting the politics of fear can help him win the next campaign

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses families of victims of repeat violent offenders, Thursday, February 12, 2015 in Victoriaville, Que. Paul Chiasson/CP</p>

Paul Chiasson/CP

Paul Chiasson/CP
Paul Chiasson/CP

As home to big unions and even bigger government, Quebec is where conservatism has withered at the altar of the province’s almighty welfare state. At least, this has been the experience of the governing Conservatives, whose decade-long reign has come largely despite the electoral will of Quebecers.

Strange, then, that three of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s four visits to Quebec in less than two months were chock full of stump speeches and glad-handing, the kind of retail politics usually reserved for election campaigns. Stranger still: It seems to be working. One recent poll put the Conservatives in first place in Quebec City, with similar results in the swath of mostly rural regions west of the province’s capital city.

What changed? Surely not the Quebec electorate, which, for nearly two decades, voted for the Bloc Québécois, only to lurch en masse toward the lefty NDP in 2011. Rather, by coming out against the wearing of the face-covering niqab during a citizenship oath, which was the subject of a recent court decision, and the threat of another terrorist attack on Canadian soil, Harper hit upon a strain of collective fear in the province—where, as another recent poll suggests, nearly 80 per cent of people are worried about a terrorist attack and the indoctrination of young Quebecers by Islamist extremists.

And what goes for Quebec goes for the country as a whole. The recent threat of an attack on the West Edmonton Mall by Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab has only underscored the Canada-wide support for the government’s new anti-terrorism bill, which, according to recent polling numbers, is at nearly 85 per cent.

Related reading: Al-Shabaab and the lure of West Edmonton Mall

Since the terrorist attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the Prime Minister has taken to peppering his speeches with the words “jihad” and “terrorism,” whether speaking in Montreal or British Columbia or Brisbane, Australia. His national poll numbers have trended steadily upward, while the two opposition parties, the NDP and Liberals, have seen a corresponding decrease, according to poll aggregator Éric Grenier. “Jihadi terrorism, as it is evolving, is one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced,” Harper said in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill recently. “We will not be intimidated by jihadist terrorists,” he said in Delta, B.C., in a speech otherwise devoted to infrastructure spending. Not coincidentally, various polls suggest support for Canada’s role in the military mission against Islamic State in Iraq is high across the country, Quebec included. “Green light for the fight against ‘terror’, ” lamented a recent headline in the left-leaning nationalist newspaper Le Devoir.

Photograph by Roger LeMoyne
Photograph by Roger LeMoyne

The message seems clear: Appealing to Canadians’ baser fears doesn’t only work—it’s also a rare source of national unity.

To understand the breadth of Quebec’s transition to English Canada’s pro-security, pro-war status quo, it’s worth going back to the fall of 2001. English Canada was raring to join a U.S.-led coalition to retaliate for the 9/11 attacks. Quebec was notably more circumspect: A Léger Marketing poll at the time suggested 59 per cent of Quebecers supported a “war on international terrorism,” far below the national average of 73 per cent. Across the country, George W. Bush had higher ratings than prime minister Jean Chrétien—except in Quebec, where Chrétien’s apprehension of Bush’s march to Iraq caused his usually dismal popularity numbers to swell in the province.

What changed were demographics, cultural insecurity and the Internet. Quebec’s Muslim population more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, in large part because of Quebec’s immigration policy favouring new arrivals from French-speaking countries. This influx of French-speakers, primarily from North Africa, were decidedly different in appearance and in their religious practices, spurring the so-called “reasonable accommodations” debate.

Fear of Muslims erupted in Quebec’s overwhelmingly white hinterland (the very area Harper covets today) over the spectre of mosques on their skylines and pork-free fèves au lard at the sugar shack. The town of Hérouxville, home to exactly zero Muslims, banned public stonings.

Then the attacks started. Certainly, Quebecers were as aghast as the rest of the world at the various terrorist attacks against Western targets. Yet the attacks against soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill were a special kind of horror: Both perpetrators were pure laine francophone, born-and-bred Quebecers ostensibly radicalized by fundamentalist imams and the outer margins of the Internet.

“The fact that these two guys were from Quebec was a wake-up call,” says Quebec MNA Nathalie Roy, the critic for secular matters for the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). “It’s unthinkable that Quebec citizens would go so far as to renounce our values and our rights.” The attack on Charlie Hebdo, in which Islamist gunmen killed 12 in and around the office of the Paris-based satirical magazine in January, had particular resonance in Quebec. Proportionally, it received nearly three times the media coverage in the province than elsewhere in the country, according to Influence Communication, a Montreal-based media-monitoring company.

Photograph by Roger LeMoyne
Photograph by Roger LeMoyne

The issue of Muslim and societal values came up yet again with a recent Federal Court decision that struck down a prohibition on the wearing of the niqab while taking the public citizenship oath. Like most court decisions, there are nuances to what Federal Court Judge Keith Boswell wrote. The issue wasn’t about identification, since the woman in question, Zunera Ishaq, had already shown her face to citizenship authorities.

Nor did Boswell’s decision outright allow for the wearing of the niqab during the oath. It only quashed a 2011 government directive barring the Muslim face-covering during the ceremony because it prevented citizenship judges from “allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization,” as outlined in the citizenship regulations.

These nuances were mostly overlooked in the ensuing outrage over the Federal Court decision. This outrage was at a full boil when the Prime Minister first announced his government’s intention to appeal Boswell’s decision during a stop in Victoriaville, Que. TV journalist Isabelle Dorais, who asked Harper about the court decision in Victoriaville, says the Prime Minister was prepared for her question. “He read from a prepared statement in front of him,” Dorais says of Harper. (Conservative spokesperson Carl Vallée denied this.)

In any case, Harper’s statement, uttered in both official languages, was a master stroke of quotable outrage. “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 joining the Canadian family,” he said. “This is a society that is transparent, open, and where people are equal. And that is just . . . I think we find that offensive.”

Among those who listened at Harper’s side was Victoriaville Mayor Alain Rayes. Born of Egyptian immigrants, Rayes has been mayor of the city of 45,000 since 2009. A fit 43-year-old with a ready smile and an informal way about him, Rayes is being heavily courted to run for the Conservatives in the next election. He says the vast majority of his constituents see eye-to-eye with Harper on the topics of terrorism and societal norms.

“It’s an aberration to hear [NDP Leader] Thomas Mulcair say he is against the anti-terror bill, or to hear [Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau say he finds it normal that a person doesn’t remove her niqab during a citizenship oath. I’m not against the veil or freedom of religion, but there is a limit,” Rayes says.

Rayes is careful to differentiate Harper’s strategy from that of the Parti Québécois, which tried to make the banning of religious symbols a political issue during the 2014 provincial election. “The PQ mixed everything up. They wanted a secular state, yet you see crucifixes all over the place, like it’s okay for us, but not for Muslims. I don’t think we’re speaking about the same thing with Mr. Harper. What I hear from him is that it’s a question of identity, of security and respect.”

Harper’s bons mots about the niqab were well-timed in more ways than one. For months, the CAQ and the opposition PQ have hammered the Quebec’s Liberal government for its perceived weakness in addressing the problem of Muslim extremism in Quebec society.

“There’s been an increase of radical Islamist fundamentalism, and [Quebec Premier] Philippe Couillard can’t even say the word ‘fundamentalist,’ ” says PQ MNA Agnès Maltais. The CAQ, meanwhile, proposed a motion to perform background checks on anyone requesting a permit to build a mosque in Quebec, as well as a law banning any form of speech that “goes against the values inscribed in Quebec’s charter of rights.” It was voted down in Quebec’s National Assembly. (“What we wrote wasn’t perfect,” Roy says in hindsight.)

This makes for fertile political ground for the Conservatives, says Quebecer Stephen Brown. “In Quebec, if a deeply unpopular prime minister comes and says, ‘I want to protect you and your culture,’ he’s going to have an immediate audience. The fear of extremist Islam, which is justified, is like political catnip,” says the 28-year-old volunteer with the Quebec-based Canadian Muslim Forum.

Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The Tories may find this a winning strategy outside of Quebec, as well. An Angus-Reid poll published in mid-February suggested that 82 per cent of Canadians support Bill C-51, the Conservative government’s anti-terrorism legislation. An earlier Angus-Reid poll, published about a month after the attacks in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu and Parliament Hill, suggests why this support is so high. Sixty-two per cent of Canadians (including 60 per cent of Quebecers) believe homegrown terrorism is a serious threat.

The terrorist attacks in Canada in 2014 have had a similar effect on public opinion as the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, says University of Toronto professor and terrorism law expert Kent Roach. In both cases, politicians leveraged the collective fear of terrorism to pass more stringent laws. “Like the Anti-Terrorism Act enacted after the 9/11 attacks, Bill C-51 is an omnibus bill that is being enacted amid fears of additional terrorist attacks. In both cases, there are almost daily media accounts of terrorist threats to Canada,” Roach says, the most recent being al-Shabaab’s vague threat against the West Edmonton Mall.

Yet Roach says the Conservative anti-terror bill in its current form goes much further than its 2001 predecessor, particularly in the additional powers given to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). “The original Anti-Terrorism Act almost totally ignored CSIS. The new powers given to CSIS under C-51, like the ability for CSIS agents to ‘enter any place or open anything’ in the pursuit of a terrorist suspect, violate Canadian laws and the Charter. All CSIS has to do is convince a Federal Court judge that they aren’t going to kill or harm anyone, or willfully obstruct justice,” says Roach.

Under pressure from the public and the opposition, the Liberal government at the time introduced sunset clauses and additional reviews to Canada’s original Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001. As well, the bill was amended to avoid targeting political and religious speech, and the provision requiring all protest be “lawful” was removed—effectively allowing protests blockading pipelines, among other types of civil disobedience. In its current form, the Conservatives’ anti-terror bill doesn’t make such distinctions, and Roach doesn’t see any coming. “The bill only has three days in Commons committee, so I doubt there will be major amendments,” he says. (It’s also worth remembering that the Liberal party is supporting the bill, and the Bloc Québécois hasn’t yet opposed it outright.)

Meanwhile, the Conservative government continues to remind Canadians of the dangerous world beyond, and within, this country’s borders. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander sent out a note to supporters criticizing the Federal Court for its stance on the niqab. He also noted his government’s intention to appeal the decision “allowing people to wear the hijab,” thus, knowingly or not, conflating the niqab and the hijab, two very different articles of clothing. (The term hijab is widely used to describe a head scarf that doesn’t cover the face.) A stock picture of a woman wearing a niqab appeared on the Conservatives’ website last week, before being taken down. And it took just over a week into his tenure as Canada’s new defence minister for Jason Kenney to proclaim the “high probability of future jihadist attacks from within”—a contention, coincidentally or not, that 62 per cent of Canadians believe, according to the Angus-Reid poll. (A bit of perspective: Canadian-born terrorists were responsible for the deaths of two people in 2014; in 2011, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data, 2,158 Canadians died in motor vehicle accidents.)

Related reading: On Chris Alexander’s hijab reference

But even the greenest politician knows that campaigns aren’t won on road safety. As the Conservatives have shown across the country, fear of jihadists and face-coverings alike is a far more exploitable subject that also happens to dovetail with the government’s tough-on-crime agenda. “If I were Stephen Harper’s political adviser, I’d tell him to do exactly what he’s doing,” says Brown of the Canadian Muslim Forum. “Fear is the most powerful human emotion and, if people are afraid, they will be willing to give you more power in the name of protecting them.” In promoting this fear in Quebec and beyond, perhaps Stephen Harper has found the key to national unity after all.