National Column: Anti-niqab law brings Trumpism to Canada

by Thomas Walkom

The worst of Trumpism has come to Canada.

It has come in the form of a Quebec law that, under the guise of promoting religious neutrality and accommodation, blatantly discriminates against Muslims.

And it has met with only the most minimal of resistance from federal politicians – even those like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who like to cloak themselves in the garb of human rights.

If U.S. President Donald Trump had proposed this particular law in his country, the outrage would have been palpable.

Known popularly as Bill 62, the law makes it illegal for Quebec public services to be given or received by people wearing face coverings.

The provincial government pretends the law is about civility and public safety. “We live in a free and democratic society,” said Premier Philippe Couillard at one point. “You speak to me, I should see your face and you should see mine. It’s that simple.”

In fact, it’s not that simple. The real aim of Bill 62 is to pander to anti-Islamic prejudice by singling out those Muslim women who, for religious reasons, veil their faces.

Among other things, the law would prevent women wearing niqabs and burkas from using public transportation – unless they receive special authorization.

It goes well beyond anything Trump has ever suggested. He’s talked of barring foreign Muslims from entering America.

But he has never talked of harassing Muslim women who are already in the U.S.

If he had, he would have been denounced as a racist and mocked mercilessly. Politicians would have lined up to challenge him.

But in Canada, the political reaction outside of Quebec to Bill 62 has been muted.

Most politicians don’t comment unless they are specifically asked. And when they do comment, they walk on tiptoes.

In opposition, Liberal leader Trudeau waxed eloquent against proposals such as Bill 62 that attempt to dictate what people can wear.

During the 2015 election campaign, he denounced then prime minister Stephen Harper’s anti-Muslim forays, such as his attack on so-called barbaric cultural practices, as “the politics of fear.”

But in this case, Trudeau has become strangely passive.

“It’s not up to the federal government to challenge this,” the prime minister said in Quebec on Thursday.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is equally passive. “Ultimately it’s up to Quebecers to pass judgment on this legislation,” his spokesperson told CBC.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh said that while he opposes Bill 62, he’s confident about “the existing protections that are in place in Quebec.”

I think that means that he too plans to say or do not very much.

In fact, Ottawa need not be so passive. The federal government could refer the constitutionality of Bill 62 to the Supreme Court.

But no politician wants to take that route for fear of alienating Quebec voters. Because the dirty little secret about this particular bit of pandering is that it’s popular. This is not because Quebec is uniquely Islamophobic. A 2005 decision by the Ontario government designed to prevent Muslims from using religious law in some family disputes was equally popular in that province.

But, as former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair found to his dismay in 2015, defending the niqab can carry a steep political price in Quebec.

And so nothing happens. That’s the way it is when Trumpism gains a hold. Politicians – even those who know better – are reluctant to oppose something that, for whatever reason, is widely popular.

Parliament recently passed something called the Magnitsky Act that allows the government to sanction foreign leaders who abuse human rights in other countries. It was passed unanimously.

Yet most MPs stand silent when human rights are abused in this country. Shame on them.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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