The NDP's queasy opposition on the niqab

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Thomas Mulcair's stand against a 'niqab ban' at citizenship ceremonies didn't cause the NDP to lose the election. For the NDP to have defeated Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, they needed to launch a focused attack against Harper's "fear and loathing campaign" -- as dubbed by Mulcair.

Instead it was Justin Trudeau's highly visible and aggressive rallying against the niqab ban as part of the "politics of division and fear" that secured the Liberal victory in the last two weeks of the campaign.

In his post-election interviews, Mulcair says that his principled stand against the niqab ban was the defining moment of his political career. The NDP should be proud of its opposition to the Conservatives' package of Islamophobic policies rolled out after the October 2014 Parliament Hill shootings.

Mulcair named and led a vigorous opposition against the Conservative agenda of fear and loathing in all of its forms: military intervention in Iraq and Syria, stripping citizenship from "terrorists" (Bill C-24), spying on "terrorists" (Bill C-51), Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, and the niqab ban.

When Harper singled out mosques while referring to radicalization on February 2, Mulcair named it as "a form of Islamophobia, and it was wrong."

The Liberals let themselves be cornered into voting for Bill C-51 and the "Barbaric Cultural Practices Act." The NDP had been in a distant third place in the polls, but their opposition to the fear and loathing campaign sparked their rise in the polls past both the Conservatives and the Liberals.

On February 6, a federal court ruled that Zunera Ishaq could wear her niqab at her citizenship ceremony and Harper announced on February 12 that he would appeal the ruling, a move immediately denounced by Trudeau. A full week later, Mulcair finally weighed in, "For years I've seen that Muslims are often scapegoats in political debates. And I find that upsetting. The government's appealing, but as far as we're concerned, the Federal Court got it right."

The Bloc Quebecois went after the NDP, running TV ads against them in Quebec by February 26: "Do you have to hide your face to vote for the NDP?"

It was clear to many journalists that Harper had crossed a line into dangerously racist territory and that it was likely to backfire politically.

"With their seemingly popular niqabs-and-anti-terror package, Conservatives are essentially fronting a watered-down version of the Parti Québécois' 'values' campaign with a war bolted on. The values charter was popular in the polls, and so was the PQ. And when it came time for Quebecers to vote, it was no help to the PQ at all," wrote Chris Shelley in the National Post on Feb 26.

Trudeau's campaign against the "politics of division and fear"

On March 9, Harper filed the appeal on the verdict on the Supreme Court case that challenged the citizenship ceremony niqab ban. The same day, Trudeau delivered a speech at McGill University about diversity and liberty, much of it a philosophical argument against Harper's Islamophobia. It touched on key themes that Trudeau would use in his closing argument of the fall election campaign:

"Mr. Harper and I disagree fundamentally about many things. None perhaps more so than this: Leading this country should mean you bring Canadians together. You do not divide them against one another. Fear is a dangerous thing. Once it is sanctioned by the state, there is no telling where it might lead. It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty … we should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, being used to raise fears against Muslims today."

The NDP continued its clear opposition to Harper's campaign of Islamophobia. "Mr. Harper specifically singles out mosques. That leads to Islamophobia," said Mulcair.

"He's basically trying to say that anyone who opposes Bill C-51, or the government's agenda, is a terrorist. That's basically what he's saying," said former NDP MP Paul Dewar. "If I was a Muslim Canadian, I would be very, very, very concerned about where our prime minister is going with this hot-button race rhetoric," said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

"If the prime minister was hoping to create a wedge issue with his remarks about niqabs and the Muslim faith the heat on Parliament Hill today might suggest success," was Peter Mansbridge's March 12 opening line on CBC's The National. Mulcair continued to speak out strongly against Harper's racist and reckless pursuit of a maximally divisive wedge issue, designed to inspire fear in the general population at the expense of a minority group.

"I know Mr. Harper is trying to hit every single red button on his dashboard, but it's not working," said Mulcair on March 16. "I think Canadians can see beyond this fear and loathing campaign that he thinks is going to be a winner for him. It's not the Canada I live in, these are not the Canadians I speak to."

The NDP's queasy opposition

The niqab ban as a wedge against the NDP started to show signs of success. A few NDP MPs in Quebec publicly broke from the party's position. MP Alexandre Boulerice said on French TV on March 5 that he was "totally uncomfortable" with public bureaucrats wearing a niqab.

A week later, Mulcair addressed his remarks and countered that the real test of whether you believed in the Charter was if you still supported peoples' rights and liberties even if something makes you uncomfortable.

The issue returned to the headlines in September when the Federal Court of Appeal rejected Harper's appeal. Some journalists felt that the NDP was waffling on its position, but in the first French-language leaders' debate on September 24, Mulcair held firm: "We should strike against the oppressors if you think there's oppression here. But it's not by depriving these women of their citizenship and their rights if you want to help them. You're playing a dangerous game here, Mr. Harper."

Between the two French debates, the NDP numbers declined further, especially in Quebec. The NDP decided to moderate their tone. Mulcair would admit that he was uncomfortable, but that it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars to challenge the court ruling.

During the second French debate on October 2, Mulcair said, "The way Mr. Harper says it, it's like there are people here that are pro-niqab. No one here is pro-niqab. We realize that we live in a society that requires that we follow the rule of law, even if the practice is uncomfortable to us. Mr. Harper, you are playing a dangerous game of the kind I've never seen in my life."

With the NDP playing defence in Quebec, the Liberals gambled that most voters were sick and tired of Harper's racist campaign, especially in the riding-rich urban centres of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

On Sunday, October 4, the Liberal campaign bussed Liberal Party members from all over Ontario to an arena in Brampton for a huge TV ad shoot. Trudeau gave a speech entirely focused on unity in the face of the divisive policies of the Harper government. "My vision of Canada is open and confident and hopeful! ...For 10 years, Stephen Harper has never missed an opportunity to divide Canadians. The politics of fear and division. Fear of the world beyond our borders, fear of each other...We have a chance to beat fear with hope." The speech was turned into a television ad released in time for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Despite record-breaking fundraising, the NDP did not release an inspirational television message for the long weekend to close the campaign. During the same period in the 2011 campaign, Jack Layton's inspirational message of hope was the most successful ad in the NDP history. Instead, they missed Thanksgiving weekend and debuted their final ad on Monday October 11. The ad was an attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal.

By campaigning opportunistically on taxing the rich and deficits, the Liberals moved from a distant third place in August into a three-way tie by September. By hammering home the message that they were the polar opposite to Harper on the niqab they took the lead in October and won the election.

This was part three of a three-part series: "How the Liberals outflanked the NDP on the left."

Read part one: Tax the rich: How the Liberals outflanked the NDP

Read part two: Balanced budgets a terrible hill for the NDP to die on

Sarah Beuhler is an activist campaigner who runs issue-based digital campaigns for non-profits and unions. She was the Campaign Manager for the 2014 COPE municipal election campaign.

Tristan Markle is a writer and activist based in Vancouver. He co-founded The Mainlander, an online publication for progressive civic politics. He has been active in provincial NDP campaigns, as well as municipal campaigns for the left-wing COPE.

Photo: flickr/ filtran


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