Reason over fear: the Niqab debate means something to me

Editors Note: written before October 19, 2015

The Niqab debate is one that worries me deeply. Some might wonder why someone who was not raised in the Islamic faith would care. In my case, my reasons are deeply personal. When I was a university student in 1990s, I travelled to London, Ontario. It was one of many times that I ended up in the city, but this particular time will always be the most memorable. A friend of mine and I went for a walk and ended up going through a well-lit park. There were a number of people doing the same, so we didn’t feel worried or scared. However, as we went for our walk, a man on a perpendicular path, riding on a bike and thirty seconds ahead of us, crossed our path and said one sentence. Now memory has faded the exact words, but his intent was very clear: “Go back to where you came from”. My friend and I were born in Toronto and we were so dazed that one of us said “Go back to Toronto?”.

It took a moment for the ugliness of the comment to dawn on us. She is Half Filipina and Half German. I am black with parents from both Barbados and Jamaica. It took a moment for us to realize that we were being identified because we were different. Or in that mans’ opinion, either of us – or both of us – were less Canadian than he because of our physical features.

This might sound like a one off but it is not. Sikhs remember the Turban and Kirpan debates. Since the 1990s, Courts have had to rule on these issues. Grant v. Canada (Attorney General) [1995] provided the jurisprudential basis for Sikhs to wear Turbans in the RCMP. While, in 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada allowed Kirpans into schools specifically and in the public spaces more generally. In the case, Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys, [2006], our Court asked us to not retrace the path left by our ancestors but to move toward a new road: A route which is pluralistic and inclusive.

For, Canadian History is full of examples where minorities suffered because of majoritarian fears. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the Chinese Community to remedy the actions of the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. In the 1920’s, Prime Minister King bowed to political expediency and a Majority of Canadians by bringing in more prohibitive regulations to limit Chinese immigration. Stephen Harper also apologized to Canada’s Aboriginal Community because Indian Residential School Programme – a century old programme meant to Canadianize them.

But they are not the only minorities to have suffered. The Italian, Japanese and German communities were interned and some lost their citizenship just because we didn’t trust them. While, in 1939, 907 Jewish refugees aboard the German transatlantic liner St. Louis who were seeking sanctuary from Nazi Germany were refused entry.  Of those refugees, 254 would later die in concentration camps. (Canada turned away Jewish refugees, by Aaron Beswick,, published Dec. 15, 2013, Last Updated Dec. 15, 2013)

While, in 1914, Canada turned away a Japanese steamship called the Komagata Maru. The ship only had British Subjects aboard it. In 1914, the British and Canadian Law stated that the 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus who were onboard should have been admitted. The only problem was that the passengers were of the wrong skin colour.  So, only 24 of the 376 passengers were admitted into BC.  This was the politics of fear. This is the politics that Stephen Harper is dipping into to. Ironically, Stephen Harper apologized for the treatment of Chinese Canadians and the Resident School Programme. He apologized for the Chinese Head Tax and for the way that Canadian officials dealt with the Komagata Maru. What is saddening is that the man who apologized for past wrongs is perpetrating the same attacks. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in cursing and making the Niqab into a “social scourge”, has played the same very games that he apologized for.  It is as if he wasn’t sincere about his apologies.

For Stephen Harper’s policy prescriptions are not in line with the modern Canada. They are literally more in line with 1913. Do you want proof? Read an exert from Foreigners Or Canadians. Written by C.J. Cameron in 1913, it seems to me to serve as inspiration to Stephen Harper. In it, C.J. Cameron says: “We must endeavour to assimilate the foreigner. If the mixing process fails, we must strictly prohibit from entering our country all elements that are non-assimilable. It is contrary to the Creator’s law for white, black or yellow races to mix together. If the Canadian civilization fails to assimilate the great mass of foreigners admitted to our country, the result will be destruction to the ideals of a free and nominally Christian nation which will be supplanted by a lower order of habits, customs and institutions… we shall Canadianize the foreigner by Christianizing him.”

The notion of assimilation is totally in line with Mr. Harper’s thinking. For he is arguing that it is the “Other”, the unfamiliar, which we should fear: those people that bring “barbaric cultural practices” to Canada. Stephen Harper argues that we should fear the two women who dare to wear the Niqab while reciting the Oath of Allegiance. For they, the “Other” is dangerous and not like those who came before.

Mr. Harper’s words are in line with a Canada that thought that women could not choose. For that was the argument of those who opposed giving women the right to vote. In 1913, male politicians argued that women were neither smart enough nor strong enough to be granted the vote. Today, Stephen Harper has to be arguing the same thing. Or put differently, Stephen Harper said that the Niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. (Niqabs ‘rooted in a culture that is anti-women,’ Harper says, by Steven Chase, The Globe and Mail, Published Mar. 10, 2015 4:12PM EDT, Last updated, Mar. 11, 2015) Consequently, Stephen Harper’s argument must be that since women are neither smart enough nor strong to not wear the Niqab, then the Canadian Government should step in. The Canadian Government should protect the “weak” and “fiable” Muslim Women from those men or their culture that demand that they wear the Niqab. In my mind, Stephen Harper’s argument is propitious for one reason: Zunera Ishaq. Mrs. Ishaq seemed to have summonsed the strength of the Famous Five. For like them, she was willing to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish her rights. Mrs. Ishaq is the epitome of the strength showed by Abolitionists, the Suffragettes or the Fathers of Confederation.

This strength and passion obviously comes from her wearing the Niqab by choice. In interviews, she has noted that she started to wear the Niqab when she was 16 and in Pakistan. In spite of the disagreement of her family and her secular Muslim father, and before she met her husband, Zunera choose to wear it. Like some Catholics who wear a cilice or rosary, like some Jewish men who wear a kippah, or Jewism women who keep their head covered, Ms. Ishaq has made a choice. In her case, her choice of conscience has brought the full weight of the Canadian Government. Like the Famous Five, in a peaceful manner, she soldiered on through the Courts to establish her rights. Her act was so Canadian and yet, Stephen Harper, wishes to raise the fear of the majority.

This is why I have to speak up. Stephen Harper has chosen to forget the lessons of two Canadian Prime Ministers who broke with a Canada that was fearful of change or inclusion. Diefenbaker and Pearson choose to implement a whole slate of policies which created modern Canada. This started with the creation of the Canadian Bill of Rights and it moved forward from there towards an official policy of bilingualism and biculturalism and then toward a policy of multiculturalism. They choose a set of policies which eschewed the idea of Tyranny or the Despotism of the Majority, in favour of guaranteeing the rights of individuals.

Those changes made it possible for us not only to accept more political refugees, economic migrants and those searching for a new and interesting place, but to do so in large numbers. Trudeau, Clark, Mulroney, Turner, Campbell, Chretien and Martin followed the example of Diefenbaker and Pearson. While the Court’s role cannot be downplayed, those aforementioned Prime Ministers’ have led Canadian Government through the greatest increase in liberty in Canadian History. They made a Canada that was more inclusive than exclusive; a Canada that accepted my parents and so many others.

As I started, I have a personal reason to be concerned about the use of fear in a political debate. Because a debate about what a few people do, could easily come to include me. Or as was said by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

So I hope on October 19th, Reason triumphs over Fear. I hope that we embrace a more inclusive country and a more diverse country. I hope that the Politics of Stephen Harper is rejected because all of us gain when that happens.

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