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"Say it loud, say it clear, Muslim women welcome here!" was the chant that filled the sidewalk outside of Minister of the Status of Women Kellie Leitch's campaign office in Alliston, Ontario on the afternoon of Thursday October 8.
Women's groups and their supporters gathered in response to Leitch joining with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to announce their "barbaric cultural practices" hotline. While this hotline is designed to divide neighbours on the basis of religion -- in essence inviting white Canadians to spy on their Muslim neighbours and "report" on them -- this action, organized by Women Working with Immigrant Women and endorsed by the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics and Toronto Health Coalition, was coordinated to identify "barbaric Conservative practices."
Signs were pasted onto the side of the office identifying the worst of the Conservative record, including: refusing to call an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, denying health care to refugees, voter suppression and the destruction of the environment.
Harper's Conservatives have also been whipping up racism and xenophobia under the guise of "women's rights" by proposing a ban on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies and possibly for all public servants. In response, there have been a rash of incidents, including the assault of a pregnant, Muslim woman in Montreal and woman wearing a niqab in Toronto being attacked while shopping with her daughters.
In a statement in solidarity with the action, Judy Rebick said, "That the most anti-feminist leader in decades is using women's rights to cover his blatant racism and sexism adds insult to injury. What we wear is an individual choice just like control of our bodies. It is central to women's rights and to human rights. Adding other appeals to racism under the cover 'barbaric cultural practices' deepens the outrage."
Photo: Michelle Robidoux
The rally began with Michelle Robidoux from the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics telling the crowd:
"We are here to say there are many things in this country that are deeply disturbing, but they are not the niqab. What is disturbing is Ministers Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander fomenting xenophobia and mistrust, getting neighbours to spy on each other with a hotline. Where is the hotline for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women? Where is the inquiry? It is barbaric that the Prime Minister ordered a halt to refugee acceptance while thousands of people were drowning while fleeing wars."
Others in the group wondered why, if Conservatives want to "protect" Muslim women, they don't appear to be asking any Muslim women what issues they care about in this election.
Participant Mohamed Baksh said he joined the action "in support of this issue and for Muslim women in general and to talk about the divisiveness Harper is trying to put out there."
"It's working," added Baksh, "because Muslim women wearing the niqab are afraid to go out in public and to go shopping. Harper wants to pit the rest of the public against Muslims so he can win this election. I appreciate when I look around and see everybody here today who are non-Muslims and I appreciate people coming out and showing that we have good support from the community out there because it goes to show that we all want to stand up for equality, we all want to stand up for justice and we want to make sure that people have that freedom and right to choose."
Passers-by honked their horns and stopped to read the signs and express support. The widespread sentiment was that history has shown us what happens when the broader public do not act while a minority population is being demonized and scapegoated.
Photo: Michelle Robidoux
"My Canada includes a welcome to everyone. My Canada includes refugees that are assisted, that have health care, that have respect. My Canada includes women's rights. My Canada includes making every effort to get people to vote, not to disenfranchise them. In my Canada, every citizen has the same rights, there are no second class citizens. In my Canada we respect one another. This is the Canada I want back. This is the Canada that Stephen Harper has taken away from me," said Jane Cawthorne, activist and author of The Abortion Monologues.
Activists remained outside of the office for over an hour but there was no sign of Minister Leitch or any of her staff. In the tradition of Harper's Conservatives, she chose to hide from debate and run away from the community's reaction to her policies.
Nicole, a concerned Toronto activist, summed it up when she said, "We have to expose [Leitch's] hypocrisy. Women who wear the niqab should have the choice to wear it and they shouldn't be subjected to any psychological violence or exclusion from larger society. Whether they are being denied access to services, to citizenship or employment, or experiencing abuse or ridicule within their community because of scare tactics that have been generated by a government that is panicking right now for fear of not remaining in power."
Julie Devaney is a health, patient and disability activist based in Toronto. She is the author and performer of the critically acclaimed show, educational workshop series, and book, My Leaky Body. My Leaky Body was named one of Quill and Quire's Top Five Non-fiction books of 2012. Most recently, she co-edited MESS: The Hospital Anthology. Julie has been featured on CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art and The Current, and in Chatelaine and the Toronto Star. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and numerous anthologies. Julie's rabble column, "Health Breakdown," is an accessible, jargon-free take on the politics behind current health-care stories. You can find her on Twitter: @juliedevaney