How to respond to the niqab issue

With three weeks to go in the Canadian election campaign, the Conservatives are surfing on popular opposition to Muslim women covering their faces during the Canadian citizenship ceremony. This was entirely predictable. There is plenty of evidence that many Canadians are strongly opposed to immigration. The NDP and Liberal parties activated that opposition with their opportunistic promises to take in more refugees. It has now crystalized around the niqab. But there is still time to reframe the debate and take advantage of the passion the issue has aroused – without compromising principles.

Before I continue, I should say that I believe Canada should take in far more refugees, I am not concerned that immigration levels are too high, and I have no problem with women wearing niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.1 I disagree with the nativist and frankly xenophobic views of many Canadians. But these are not my top issues. I want to see evidence-based policy, reinforced democracy, and action to address climate change and inequality. I am not willing to sacrifice these things to debates about niqabs.

Do Canadians really welcome refugees?

The first place the opposition parties went wrong was in their interpretation of polls. Following devastating photographs of the bodies of Aylan and Galib Kurdi, washed up drowned on a Turkish beach came reports that the family wanted to come to Canada. Polls taken during the following week found most Canadians in favor of taking in more refugees. In the emotional aftermath of a front-page tragedy, a majority (54% in one poll) said Canada should take in more refugees.

Fifty-four percent is not a large majority. Would that support translate into votes six weeks later? Is the support soft? Is the opposition strong? The poll on its own gives a valuable indication about how Canadians were thinking at that moment, but more data is needed interpret its significance.

I study reader comments on news stories. Researchers have found that comments are one of the popular online means for citizens to comment on news stories, beating out social media and Twitter. According to CBC, about three quarters of their readers read comments, while a third have commented at some point. Of course I cannot know who these commenters are. They are presumably not representative of the population at large. But they are not cozy communities of like-minded folk: they often feature bitter disagreement. They may represent those who are more passionate rather than those who are less. In the context of an election, commenters on a given issue are probably more likely to vote based on it than are non-commenters. Taken over time and across sites, comments may reveal patterns and narratives.

I have been reading comments regularly for years. On Canadian news stories, particularly on the CBC (but also elsewhere), the strongest pattern I have observed is nativism and xenophobia. On any story about immigration, no matter how sympathetic, no matter how much red tape is damaging marriages or excluding children, the response is almost always unsympathetic: get in line, you have no right to be here, we don’t need more people. I recall only two exceptions. One was a child who had lived in Canada for years with his family and was faced with expulsion. The other was Aylan Kurdi, where empathy briefly emerged.

Here are excerpts from the top five comments on the CBC story about Kurdi coming to Canada

The images evoke an emotional response, but we can’t just throw open our borders to just anyone.

We simply cannot grant asylum every person on the planet that is being marginalized by events in their own region.

Why isn’t anyone screaming for Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or other middle eastern countries to take in some refugees?

Canada lets in more refugees proportionate to our population than any country on Earth. Canada has NOTHING to be ashamed of or apologize for.2

While this is a horribly tragic incident, policy cannot be driven by one incident. Knee jerk promises . . . may not be in the best interest of Canada.

These just aren’t any comments. Of the 2,000 on this article, these are the five that attracted the most Likes. Of the twenty comments with the most Likes, only one calls for more refugees. It is the very first comment, the comment with the opportunity to attract the most votes: yet six later comments rate higher than it.

These comments are the best indicators we have of the views of commenters at the moment when the story broke and emotions were highest. Perhaps there is a silent majority who disagree, but they do not appear to be passionate enough to comment, or even to Like those they agree with. Nor is CBC a Conservative site. Comments criticizing the Conservative government are consistently voted up. I would say that the views of most commenters are populist rather than ideologically left- or right-wing. In general, this is the pattern I have seen on other sites and on other issues. At the time, I thought it was a tragic error when Trudeau and Mulcair promised to bring in more refugees (even though I would like them to do that). They may have made momentary gains, but they are now paying the price.

The niqab

Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been latent, with no politician to latch on to. I have long hoped that no political party would seize on it. Now they are: the Conservatives, in their hour of need, perhaps with the advice of Lynton Crosby.

The niqab debate, I believe, is not only about citizenship ceremonies or fear of Islam (though again judging by comments there is plenty of Islamophobia to go around). Rather the niqab stands in for a whole raft of nativist opinion. It is a socially acceptable way to signal a hard line, concealed behind concerns about sexism and security.

The opposition parties are going about this entirely the wrong way. Mr Mulcair says that we cannot force women to be independent by telling them what they can and cannot wear. I agree with him. But his argument does not matter. If I say the niqab should be banned in order to empower women, I am demonstrating that I care about equality between the sexes. I am saying that I a decent sort, not a bigot. From that perspective, it does not matter if I am mistaken: I have still established my integrity.

This makes for a perfect issue for the Conservatives. It motivates their base (who, according to the polls, are less interested in letting in refugees). It grows their coalition, splitting off some voters from their opponents. They don’t need most Canadians to agree with them, they only need a fraction to get that extra 10% support to give them 40% of the vote and a majority government. For opponents, the niqab is a no-win issue.

Hitting back on TFWs

I’m sure the opposition parties know this. That’s what political framing is all about. But I think that the niqab opens up an opportunity to strike back, to return the debate to issues where the Conservatives are weak.

When the government ratified the FIPA trade agreement with China, commenters were just as upset as terms that allow Chinese investors to sue Canadian governments over laws that threaten their profits. The Conservatives are on track to do the same thing with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I wish the opposition parties would jump on this, but they won’t. Powerful businesses, the U.S. government and Canadian news media are pushing hard for TPP. Canadians are generally in favor of trade. Explaining why this particular trade agreement is bad is probably too complex for an election campaign.

Instead, the opposition should find a way to go after the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. It brings in workers who compete directly for Canadian jobs, without integrating them into our communities, often paying them less and subjecting them to abuse by employers. This expedient treatment is bad for the workers and for ordinary Canadians. This is a more important, more legitimate issue that niqabs. It activates the same people who are upset about immigration: only against the Conservatives, rather than for them.

The TFW issue also brings the debate back to economics, where the Conservatives have been weak. This must be dealt with carefully, as the evidence is equivocal: apparently many Canadians do feel better off than in the past. But a party that wins on the economy will win in the election. It is better to frame the debate than hope it will go away. Polls have made clear that Canadians are open to seeing the Conservatives as poor managers of the economy. Competing with under-paid TFWs underlines that message, draws on existing passions, potentially fracturing the Conservative base and remind everyone about their failings.

Right now, niqabs are in the news and TFWs are not. Why? Because of the court case, but also because the Conservatives, who basically refuse to comment on any issue, have decided to talk about this one. Their silence allows them to make news when they want to. The opposition parties need to put TFWs in the news. Interrogating the government on its record is their job.


1 Many Canadians are confused on the issue. The women in question have previously removed their face coverings for positive identification. Wearing a niqab during the ceremony cannot be used to conceal who they are.

2 This is untrue. Canada does not have the most immigrants per capita