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Why the NDP actually needs to have the niqab debate again

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The biggest stumble for the NDP in Quebec in the 2015 election was Tom Mulcair's response to the Federal Court decision allowing Zunera Ishaq to wear a face-covering niqab during a citizenship ceremony.

Now, there are a lot of progressives in English-speaking Canada who reject that conclusion. If you are one of those you can stop reading now and put your head back in the sand.

The court overturned the ban on face-coverings during citizenship ceremonies established by the Harper Conservatives. Privately, before the ceremony, Ishaq removed her niqab so her identity could be verified. And with that simple fact goes the rationale for about 99 per cent of the Conservatives’ hysterical defence of their niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies.

But Ishaq wanted to wear her niqab during the ceremony. Harper’s rule said no. But the court -- and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- said yes.

And Tom Mulcair agreed. The NDP leader took the position that the state must not dictate what a person can and can't wear. It wasn't his position that was the stumble.

In the two days immediately after the court decision, support for the then poll-leading NDP plummeted by 20 points in Quebec under a wilting attack from Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois.

Two years later, in Quebec the niqab debate is still alive. The government of Quebec is pursuing Bill 62, which could require a woman to remove her niqab to receive many public services.

The Bill is justified on the basis of secularism -- the idea that church and state must be divided. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Duplessis will understand the deep scar left in Quebec politics by "la grande noirceur" -- the great darkness -- when the church ran the schools, hospitals and social services like an intimidating French-language Catholic Taliban.

The Quiet Revolution not only defeated Duplessis’ government and kicked out the priests, it destroyed the oppressive political structure they built. It rebuilt public services on a secular basis. For Quebecers, especially on the left, secularism is a profoundly progressive idea.

Of course, like many good principles, secularism can be used as a Trojan horse for racism. Just think of how often white supremacists hide their hate inside a wrapper titled "free speech" -- as if that entitles them to stand on any media or university platform, which it most assuredly does not. But progressives don't abandon free speech just because the right-wing is torqueing the concept. And progressive Quebecers will never abandon secularism.

Yet that is exactly what some English-speaking progressives now seem to want. In recent days, since NDP leadership candidate Guy Caron provoked this uncomfortable but necessary debate, New Democrats on Twitter or other social media have equated secularism with racism. It is time to do some listening rather than shouting.

Caron, like the other NDP leadership candidates, supports Mulcair’s view on religious clothing. But he added the provocative point that New Democrats need to respect the right of Quebec to pass its own laws within its own jurisdiction -- even Bill 62. That statement was not what some people wanted to hear. But it's a statement of fact, both constitutionally and in the art of politics.

Constitutionally, Canada is a federation with provinces that govern within their own jurisdictions. And even if the Supreme Court strikes down a provincial bill for offending a fundamental freedom, a province can exempt that bill from court review by declaring the bill is "notwithstanding" the Charter. That is how our country works. Like or not, there is nothing that can be done to stop Bill 62 if the Government of Quebec chooses.

It's not like Quebec hasn't used the notwithstanding clause before. Forty years ago the Quebec government used the notwithstanding clause to skirt the Charter on Bill 101, which limited the freedom of expression, a Charter-protected fundamental freedom.

And in the art of politics there needs to be respect for Quebec progressives and the Quebec nation. Canadian progressives can stand on the hill built from Quebec-bashing and condemn Bill 62 in arrogant tones. Or they can do something about it.

That means having a respectful discussion among progressives in Quebec and across Canada about rights and how social democrats fight racism. Progressive Canadians who tell progressive Quebecers that secularism is racism or Bill 62 is racist just push away left-wing Quebecers, further convincing them that the NDP will never understand Quebec social democracy within Canada is a futile effort. It will harden positions. It will move Quebecers back to the BQ. And without some unity with Quebec progressives, the NDP can never be the official opposition again -- let alone government.

Secularism is not racism. Nor is all support for Bill 62 driven by racism. Everyone would understand the morally adrift Parti Quebecois or the right-wing populist Coalition for the Future of Quebec -- known by its French acronym CAQ -- might use secularism as a dog whistle for right-wing identity politics. But it is almost impossible to conceive that the left-wing and strongly anti-racist Quebec Solidaire party plays the same game. Especially since QS MNA Amir Khadir, a Muslim man who has taken strong stands against Islamophobia, is a key spokesperson on Bill 62, which the QS generally supports.

English-speaking progressives need to see that while the PQ and CAQ may indeed be playing footsie for the xenophobe vote -- as the Conservatives do through Rebel Media -- the motivation of the QS comes from an entirely different place.

To many on the Quebec left, including Khadir, the niqab is opposed as a symbol of sexist oppression. Racism has nothing to do with it. This is a debate between progressives, not just a competition between progressives and xenophobes.

And in fairness, let's admit it's a debate in English-speaking Canada, too. Many feminists in English-speaking Canada have chafed at the niqab, seeing it as much as the Quebec left does. But over recent years, a consensus emerged that, sexist or not, state coercion was not the solution. I agree.

Let's also be clear that the Quebec left is no monolith. Their debate continues. Many Quebec progressives agree that the state should not dictate what a person can or can't wear. Even Former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau thought it was an over-reach.

Mulcair’s stumble wasn't because his position was wrong. It was because some progressives view the issue differently and consequently end up with different conclusions. There is no consistent position. Any position would have resulted in a stumble.

The disagreement on the left must be kept respectful. Neither view is motivated by racism. Condemning secularism without understanding it does no good. What will do some good is engaging and continuing the conversation.

Quebec social democrats need to work through the NDP with other social democrats because the option of achieving social democracy through separation is weak. Canadian social democrats need to work through the NDP with Quebec social democrats because Quebec is the biggest reservoir of left-wing votes in Canada.

With Jack Layton, it all seemed so simple. But it never was. He was always listening and working with Quebec progressives, always building the bridges. With just two years before the next campaign, the listening and working has a long way to go.

Tom Parkin is a Postmedia columnist and frequent media commentator with a social democratic point of view.

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