Two. That is the number of women who have tried to take the Canadian citizenship oath since 2011 without removing their niqabs, after having already unveiled themselves to confirm their identities. Yet here we are, weeks after the issue erupted, still allowing it to hijack one of the highest stakes election campaigns in decades. Why?
Gilles Duceppe would have us believe that it is about uncompromisable principles, specifically Quebec’s values concerning gender equality. His moral authority on the matter is admittedly stronger than Stephen Harper’s, but is this what the issue is really about?
No one engaged in this debate is “pro-niqab,” though many, like Ricochet’s Toula Drimonis, are pro-choice for Muslim women. Yet while the debate over the niqab divides feminists, from the perspective of women’s rights the whole question is ultimately a distraction from the broader picture.
Indeed, anyone with any sense of reality and reason must recognize that major threats to gender equality in Canada persist and have grown considerably under the Conservatives — and that they largely emanate from homegrown Canadian society, not from immigrants.
Real threats to women’s rights
If Duceppe would like to talk about women’s rights, then all the better— but let’s start at the top, beginning with the gravest threats to women’s rights, shall we?
Let's talk about the 1,200 murdered and missing Aboriginal women, whose cases continue to inspire but a regal shrug from Harper’s Conservatives and have been largely and shamefully absent from this campaign. Let's talk about how the wage gap in Canada is among the worst in the developed world and twice the global average, or about how the Harper government gutted pay equity laws and the Court Challenges Program that helped women fight for their rights.
Let's talk about sexual harassment, which as we’ve recently been reminded, goes on every day in workplaces and public places across the country, even at the highest echelons, and yet is routinely met with silence, shrugs, rationalizations, and victim-shaming. Let’s talk about the closure of 12 of 16 Status of Women regional offices by the Conservatives, the abolition of funding for women’s groups and programs, the continued lack of affordable childcare, or the government’s ideological refusal to fund internationally engaged humanitarian organizations who help women gain access to abortions, even in cases of rape.
So by all means, let's discuss women’s rights, and let's discuss them fully and honestly, with our focus guided by the gravity of the threats and number of women affected, rather than by the women’s faith or cultures of origin. But is that we're doing, and if not, why not?
Duceppe’s dangerous game
It serves neither Harper nor Duceppe to launch a wider debate about the real threats to women’s rights in this country. It simply wouldn’t move enough votes, because of the Conservatives’ record and the Bloc’s convergence with other parties, notably the NDP, on these issues.
So to find their wedge, they instead point the self-righteous finger at "those" veiled foreigners who come to our egalitarian shores and pollute our Western values with their “barbaric cultural practices,” in the Conservatives’ eloquent phrase. The debate has sparked an irrational existential fear within a wide swath of the Quebec electorate, which is the only thing that can explain the force and speed with which the issue has moved so many votes during this crucial election campaign, as suggested by polls.
Behind the Bloc’s veil of false feminism, we find that this is not a debate about our values of gender equality at all. The keyword here is “our” — this is about us versus them, and little else. It is a knee-jerk defensive reaction from insecure ethnic nationalists, exploding with fabricated fears that a centuries-old culture and identity is under threat from invasive foreign elements. It is the barely healed wounds from Hérouxville and the Charter of Values debate, torn viciously and frivolously open yet again for crass political gain.
To the deep dismay of many, Gilles Duceppe, so often a man of progressive principles, has now wrapped himself in the same xenophobic flag as Harper, and with the identical aim of prying loose votes on the backs of Québec’s minorities. It is to his profound disgrace, for which he should be made to pay the same price as Pauline Marois by following his friend into political retirement.
The government we want
To paraphrase Stephen Harper, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that the majority of Quebecers, who seem to agree with Duceppe and Harper in public opinion polling, are a xenophobic mob.
It is one thing to tell a pollster that you believe a woman should show her face to take a citizenship oath, which while purely symbolic and constitutionally dubious, is nonetheless an argument that resonates. But it is quite another to allow an issue affecting but a half-handful of women to eclipse all reason and perspective in a historic election campaign.
Policies around climate change, economic inequalities, the cultural genocide and murder of Aboriginal people, the health of our democracy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, war and peace, the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War — and yes, women’s rights — are among the many that will be drastically impacted by the outcome.
We can now stop rubbing our eyes at the fact that we’re even still talking about the niqab in the current campaign. It’s not funny anymore. This political manipulation is vile, it is dangerous, and it must be vehemently condemned, with those politicians responsible for fanning the flames held accountable at the ballot box. Issues of severe consequence face voters, and they demand our full and reasoned consideration.
With the second-largest number of seats in the country, Quebecers have the power to decide whether our next government will be led by Conservatives, New Democrats, or Liberals. But with that power comes great responsibility, and with two weeks to go, we’re failing. Badly.