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Jason Kenney insists he never called for a niqab ban despite clear public record

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Jason Kenney during his interview yesterday. Image credit: David Climenhaga/Screenshot of CBC news video

"I've always said that Canada is a country that protects and respects religious freedom and pluralism, and the government has no business regulating what people wear." -- Jason Kenney, yesterday.

"Whaaat?" -- Everybody else, also yesterday.

Is Jason Kenney's constant gaslighting getting worse? Or were we just not paying sufficient attention when the man was safely ensconced in the nation's capital, being parliamentary and ministerial?

Whatever it is, surely even diehard supporters of the Alberta premier's United Conservative Party must find Kenney's claim yesterday that he never supported a ban on the veils known as niqabs worn by a minuscule minority of Muslim women just a little bit disturbing.

The issue came up after yesterday's online conference of western Canadian provincial and territorial leaders when reporters asked the premier about long-past statements and policies that were described as Islamophobic at the time, and look far more consequential in the aftermath of the apparent hate-motivated murder of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.

Among them, Kenney's directive not to permit women to wear niqab veils during citizenship ceremonies in 2011 when he was immigration minister, his dogged defence of that policy after the courts struck the policy down, and the Conservative Party's unsuccessful dog-whistling election campaign in the fall of 2015.

Bizarrely, notwithstanding the fact his comments were all over the media at the time and are still readily available, Premier Kenney denied it all.

"I've never supported a proposed ban," he insisted. "That has never been proposed. I've always opposed that."

"My record on these matters could not be more clear," he said in a video clip of his remarks yesterday, reciting a long list of issues on which he has supported Canadian Muslims.

The press asked the question because in the past few days two prominent Alberta federal MPs have apologized for things they and other members of the Conservative Party of Canada said during the 2015 federal election campaign, when a desperate prime minister Stephen Harper gave in to the urge to use racist cultural dog-whistles as an election strategy.

Tim Uppal, now the Conservative MP for Edmonton Mill Woods apologized on Sunday for his failure to oppose the strategy, which he admitted "contributed to the growing problem of Islamophobia in Canada."

Last week, Calgary Nose Hill Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner also apologized for her weak response to the 2015 niqab hysteria and her party's so-called "barbaric cultural practices" tip line, both of which were clearly intended to demonize Muslims and set them apart from other Canadians.

These are interesting reactions in the present circumstance, since so few Conservatives had the courage to speak out against Harper's strategy in 2015. As I wrote at the time, "the single most disheartening thing about this long 2015 federal election campaign has been the silence among influential Conservatives about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deplorable strategy of race baiting to create a wedge issue."

"It should not need to be said that such tactics deserve contempt and public disapprobation from all across the political spectrum…And yet, on the right, there has been very little said, and among Conservatives, almost nothing. This silence is unnerving."

Of course, Harper rarely said this stuff himself -- although his "old stock Canadians" crack came close. But no one with an ounce of sense, then or now, denies the manufactured niqab brouhaha -- generated by the Conservative Party's foreign consultants and domestic backroom boys -- was intentional.

While Kenney is clearly gaslighting us again, his parsing of his past phrases is reminiscent of U.S. president Bill Clinton's famous remark to a grand jury that "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

Jerrica Goodwin, Kenney's press secretary, explained what he's trying to do more clearly. He didn't mean a blanket ban on wearing niqabs, just here or there where examples could be used to rile up the Conservative base. (My phrasing, not hers, of course.) "The premier has never supported such an all-encompassing policy," she explained. (Emphasis added.)

That's true, as far as it goes. But it really changes nothing.

"This is a problem within the Conservative Party that's not going to go away just because we've had an election," I concluded in 2015. "Only Conservatives can get their own house in order."

They never really have.

With his offensive commentary from 2011 and 2015 ricocheting all over social media last night, Alberta's premier needs to swallow his pride, admit he was wrong and apologize. Then his more positive contributions can speak for themselves.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David Climenhaga/Screenshot of CBC news video

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