Canada Votes 2015

Marked bodies: Will racism win the election for Harper?

Conservatives deplore 'barbaric cultural practices' as a foreign phenomenon, while ignoring violence against Indigenous women
Photo: Stephen Harper

Canadians are waking up to the reality that racism wins elections. In recent weeks the Conservative government has proposed a tip line for reporting "barbaric cultural practices," committed to fighting forced marriages abroad, established RCMP task force units in several cities to enforce its "Muslims are barbaric" legislation, began using its new power to revoke citizenship from Canadians, and fomented a debate on the wearing of niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.

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These moves have violent consequences: in the space of a week, a group of teenagers attacked a pregnant Muslim woman wearing a niqab in Montreal, and a woman wearing the niqab in a Toronto mall was attacked in front of her daughters. Muslim women’s bodies have become the terrain for determining belonging within Canada.

What is a barbaric cultural practice?

While the phrase "barbaric cultural practices" may be novel to some, it has been included in Canada’s citizenship guide since 2009. "In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, 'honour killings,’ female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence," states the guide.

Critics such as Radha Jappan have raised a series of critical questions: "Why was it considered necessary to include the adjective, ‘barbaric?’ How widespread a practice need it be in order to be defined as a cultural practice?"

The culturally specific connotation of the phrase serves to mark gendered violence as crimes that are inherent to particular cultures, ones that ostensibly do not share Canada’s touted values of gender equality. Rather than tackling widespread patriarchal violence, this logic exceptionalizes and essentializes violence against women as a foreign phenomenon, imported to Canada by migrants whose belonging is configured as threatening.

Violence within settler-colonialism

The emphasis on barbaric cultural practices coincides with the rise of the state’s interest in combating forms of gendered violence considered culturally exceptional. This includes honour-related violence and forced marriages.

The highly publicized trial in the horrific deaths of the three Shafia sisters and their stepmother was referred to as the "honour killing trial." After a verdict of first-degree murder was handed down in 2012, Rona Ambrose, the minister of status of women, tweeted that "honour-motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women. Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture."

While elected officials made the verdict an occasion to bask in a glorious triumph over culturally motivated violence and imposed harsher legislative measures against "honour crimes," another important scene was unfolding in Vancouver. At B.C.’s Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry, state representatives heard of wide-ranging, long-term, and repeated state failures to protect Indigenous women living and working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside from sexual violence. This is part of a horrific colonial legacy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people.

"The fact that society sees Indigenous women and girls as violable, eligible targets of assault and domination, as ‘less than human’ or, as weak, isolated and defenseless is, to my mind, the heart of the issue," explains Siku Allooloo about the nature of colonial gendered violence. "This is a systemically enforced perspective. Canada was built on the forcible theft of Indigenous lands and the destruction of our societies, and through the disempowerment and desecration of Indigenous women, it continues to condone gender violence and genocide by failing to take action to end these epidemics."

The two interrelated events of the Shafia verdict and Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry highlight the systemic ways in which murdered women appear and disappear from public view. Status of Women Canada, for example, spent $335,000 to address violence against Indigenous women in one year, in contrast to $1.7 million spent on honour crimes.

Exaggerated claims about the frequency of honour killings and the gross neglect of murdered Indigenous women are both deliberate functions of gendered racial violence within settler-colonialism. Invisibilizing violence committed against Indigenous women is part of the attempted assimilation and genocide of Indigenous nations. Simultaneously, Muslim women’s bodies are made hyper-visible, which maintains anti-migrant racism and feeds into the accompanying myth of foreign threats to Canadian security.

Consequences of racialized citizenship

The racialization of citizenship has intensified under this government — from two-tiered citizenship and increased surveillance to conditional residency and increased deportation of "new-stock" Canadians. Racism operates not only at a discursive level, but has also provided fertile ground for material shifts in immigration policies.

While some may laugh off the recently proposed "Report your Muslim neighbour" tip line, the government has already implemented two snitch lines against immigrants. A watch line was launched in 2011, where the public can report non-citizens for deportation. Shortly after, the government introduced the immigration fraud line, where people can report, according to Jason Kenney, the minister of national defence and multiculturalism, "those who obtain Canadian citizenship fraudulently and tackle those who seek to demean and devalue Canadian citizenship." These types of services encourage people to become pitted against one another in the service of the Canadian state.

The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act received royal assent in June of this year. Under the guise of protecting women, the bill criminalizes immigrants coming to or already in Canada who are in polygamous marriages or in forced marriages.

"This Bill appears to extend a trend in this government’s track record to strip permanent residence and deport more and more racialized people from Canada, regardless of how long they have been here,” says a report by the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. “Contrary to what the government has stated, the proposed legislative changes will not result in greater protection for women victims of domestic violence, but will have the opposite effect." ​

Ending violence

The use of barbaric cultural practices serves to construct gender violence as "non-Canadian," thus allowing Canada to obscure its own role in reproducing gendered violence. The reality is that immigration policies and settler-colonial power are key contributing factors to the violence that many women face.

We, therefore, refuse the focus on barbaric cultural practices as somehow a distinct form of violence that operates outside of patriarchal logic and that is used to reinforce anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and war-mongering agendas. Instead we aim for feminist contestations of gendered violence that are grounded within, in the words of Anishinaabekwe/Nehayowak artist Tara Williamson, "a broader goal of dismantling colonial state power."

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