CANADA

Canadian PM Harper turns niqab into major campaign issue

Frank Gunn, AFP | Canada’s Stephen Harper during the first leaders debate in Toronto on August 6, 2015

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he would look into banning public servants from wearing the niqab if he wins re-election, turning the Muslim veil into a major campaign issue less than two weeks before voters head to the polls.

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Harper, who is seeking a fourth term in the October 19 elections, said this week that conservatives would consider federal legislation based on Quebec’s Bill 62, which bars civil servants from wearing niqabs on the job.

“That’s a matter we are going to examine,” Harper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a televised interview on Tuesday. “Quebec, as you know, has legislation on this and we are looking at that legislation.”

Harper repeated the message Wednesday on a campaign stop in Saskatoon, the National Post reported, even as rival candidates accused the PM of trying to divide Canadians for political gain.

“He’s playing the politics of fear and division, and pitting Canadians against one another. It’s irresponsible and dangerous and not worthy of the office of a prime minister”, opposition Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday.

Opinion polls show the Conservatives and Liberals virtually tied, with both camps claiming around 32 percent support, and the centre-left New Democrats projected to take 25 percent of ballots.

Harper’s conservative government has also been trying to push a ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, but a Canadian Federal Court of Appeals ruled in favour of a Muslim woman who wants to take the oath of citizenship wearing a niqab.

Wide support

According to University of Toronto professor and columnist Peter Loewen, extensive polling he has conducted around the country shows vast public support for banning the garment at citizenship ceremonies and for civil servants.

“Between 60 and 65 percent of people we polled agree with the bans, and this is consistent across all partisan groups and even among immigrants living in Canada,” Loewen told FRANCE 24 by telephone.

The scholar said he thought there was a fundamental misunderstanding about the Muslim veil among Canadian political commentators, many of whom believe that Harper’s offensive against the niqab is an attempt to woo native-born or white Canadians.

“The conservatives have assiduously courted the immigrant vote,” Loewen noted, adding that polling suggests Tory lawmakers have made gains among those constituents. Following Quebec’s lead on banning the niqab for civil servants is unlikely to damage Harper’s image with Canadian constituents who were born abroad.

“The truth is that banning the niqab has broad support among non-Muslim immigrants,” he said.

Setting the pace

Loewen agreed with claims that harping on the Muslim veil has allowed Harper to “distract” the public from other issues, but was proving to be a winning strategy as the 11-week campaign – Canada’s longest-ever – winds down.

“It’s a political issue that is obviously working well for the prime minister,” he said.

“What it does is suck the oxygen out of the campaign and allow [Harper] to set the media agenda. He has put the other candidates in a difficult spot, and is taking time away from other issues,” Loewen said.

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