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


The Passion for the Hockey Theme

Much of the value of cultural works is produced not by creators, but by the audience. I know of no better example than the recent ruckus over CBC’s failure to re-license the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. The response was tremendous. The outrage of fans poured out on CBC message boards and letters to the editor. Argument raged about the value of the song; many pressed CBC to pay the composer, Dolores Claman, whatever it took to secure the license.

But consider: the composer is only one contributor to the value of the Hockey Night in Canada theme. What is unique about the theme is its association with hockey. Claman didn’t create that association: there is nothing in the music itself that says “hockey”. She wrote the notes, but it was the audience who gave them meaning. It was they who, over decades of tradition, made the theme inseparable from the sport they love. It is they who linked it to the events of their lives. The passion shown by fans is a reflection of their own personal investments in the music.

For popular works, the audience are always important contributors to value. That is the essence of popularity; that is how we integrate a work into our shared culture. The audience are co-producers. The contribution of each individual may be small, but together these little tidbits of labor and creativity can be greater than that of the artist.

It is a commonplace that no art is wholly original. This is not a bad thing: allusion, borrowing, integration into the culture and building on the work of others are characteristics of great art. But the process does not end when the artist rests her pen or puts down his camera or the manuscript is sent to the printer. From the moment the audience experiences art they interpret it, they give it meaning, they give it value. Some may even draw upon it for their own art – for every artist begins and remains a member of the audience.

So it is with Claman’s theme. The value of her music – millions of dollars it seems – was the product of multitudes. It is not only her theme. It is theirs too. And that is the source of their passion.


Fair Copy Site

The Canadian government has indicated that it intends to push ahead and change copyright law – without consulting with ordinary Canadians who will be affected in their everyday lives. But the issues remain unclear to many citizens and journalists. I have put together the faircopy site to help explain what this is about, how it affects all Canadians, and what we can do about it. This is intended to put together a clear overview, augmenting existing efforts like the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group.


Permission to Hate

The Internet and the technical community are host to a toxic culture. This culture allows and even encourages personal attacks, threats, and misogyny. This week, Kathy Sierra’s experience with death threats forced it into the public discourse. There is of course no excuse for the behavior of the individuals who harrassed and threatened her. Yet they are only part of the problem. The solution rests not in finding, stopping, and punishing them (or helping them, for surely they are sad or sick) – although that is to be hoped for, it may be unlikely here and certainly is for the majority of such cases. It rests with others who give permission to such behavior – permission to hate.

I encountered this story via Tim Bray and others, but I’m going to concentrate on Slashdot. I pick Slashdot because it is a technical community, because I often find the discussion valuable, and because I don’t frequent the other places online that I understand are far worse. So it is on Slashdot that I have encountered a pattern of public permission for hatred. On one singular topic the community consistently breaks down and reveals its ugly side; that topic is women. The comments about women on Slashdot, the reactions of readers, and indeed my own behavior (or lack thereof) illustrate what I believe are several flawed attitudes which grant permission for bad behavior.

That’s Just How It Is

The Slashdot reaction to the Kathy Sierra story captures the problem attitudes1. There’s an acceptance – even a satisfaction – that this is “just how the Internet is”. It’s a “byproduct of the culture of the Internet . . . this sort of thing happens. . . . let’s try not to make more of it than it is.” This narrative of powerlessness in the face of human nature or technology is present even among those posters who support Kathy. One such poster encourages her not to allow unpleasantness to stop her from blogging, yet repeats the same story:

While I respect anyone in the public limelight, I think Kathy is being a tad bit naive. . . . Part of being a celebrity on any level for any topic means accepting that you gain both fame and infamy in parts.

If we simply accept bad behavior as inevitable, then we will do little or nothing to prevent it. Whether this is part of an statement of support or a criticism (see “Grow a Spine or Go Away” below), the perpetrators are given implicit permisson for their actions.

The argument itself – that this kind of behavior is natural or inevitable – is demonstrably wrong. As several posters noted, and as I recall from my experiences online in the early 1990s, the degree of aggression used to be much less. It is possible to construct more civil online communities (never mind ones without death threats) – even anonymous ones. Furthermore, as I will detail when I argue about the practical implications, the Internet will change, and the reaction to this kind of abuse will influence whether that change is for the better.

Grow a Spine or Go Away

This is the most toxic attitude of the lot, perhaps best captured by one poster concludes the following:

People are dicks. Life is hard. A lot of people say a lot of shit and don’t follow through. Either grow a spine or go away. There’s no sense being a big baby about it because someone hates you.

The individual who wrote this reports having been threatened in the past. I believe this is key: coping with abuse thus becomes a sort of hazing ritual required of those who participate online. The measure of an individual is the ability to withstand the pressure; one who fails – and apparently taking action against the abuse is a form of failure – is a “baby”.

This appears to be a particularly masculine approach (though I’m sure there are women who take this attitude, just as many or most men do not). Buried within it is a sort of misogyny, for it measures everyone by their ability to live up to a standard of toughness. In practice, women may be less likely to achieve that standard (because they are targetted more, because they complain) or to be excluded because they chose not to participate in a hateful or aggressive environment2.

The argument cloaks itself in a kind of claim to objectivity – the standard is fair because it’s the same for everyone. Yet this is clearly a lie, for the effect is to exclude people, like Kathy, whose participation is valuable. A common follow-on argument is that the alternative is distasteful censorship3. In the case of death threats this should be irrelevant. It’s also a red herring for other destructive (but legal) speech: cultural norms can be just as or more effective. The argument rejects not only the censorship but any more moderate form of social influence.

Practical Considerations

I mentioned that online aggression excludes people. This is particularly relevant for women because they are targets of sexual language, and I understand of more frequent attacks in general. This is tremendously damaging to the technical community, as many within that community have been complaining for years. To give one simple illustration, many among the Slashdot community are ardent supporters of the Linux operating system: they would like to see Linux in general use. I can’t imagine this happening if half the population is alienated like this. The same applies to other technical, political, and social concerns – if the technical community wants to be listened to, it can not afford to abuse people in general or women in particular.

The assumption that bad behavior is a fact of online life has a further implication. Those who hold it exclude themselves from processes of technical and social change. The current state of the Internet strikes a particular balance between freedom of speech and civility, between anonymity and responsibility, and so on. It is obvious to me from Kathy’s case that this balance must change. It will change: legislatures are already banning schools and children from using social networking sites. A variety of proposals aim to curb spam by eliminating anonymity. Some of these have been criticized for centralizing power and granting control to certain powerful players. If the Internet doesn’t clean up its act, someone else will. Those who pretend nothing can change because “that’s just how it is” will have no part in influencing how that happens.

The Rest of Us

The barbarians on the wire are a small minority. Some of them may sad or sick and immune to social pressure, but I suspect the majority act as they do because the social environment of the Internet gives them permission to hate. The rest of us, when we are silent, grant that permission. Saying “no” is hard – it takes time, it takes effort, it’s hard to do well. It needs saying. Those like myself who haven’t said it before or enough need to say it more often4. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the responsibility we need to take for our Internet and our society.


1 I want this to be about ideas, not an attack on individuals, so I’m not linking to specific comments. If you really need context, you can search for the comments in the article.

2 I myself have often chosen to “go away”. As a geek, I find this aggression particularly distasteful as I have been a target in the past. I hate to see my tribe inflicting its hurts on others. Unfortunately the technical culture has long shared a similar tendency to reject those who faill or choose not to cope with complexity or perversity. For example, when the complexity of certain software is criticized, there are those who reject any attempt to make it easier to use on the basis that smart people wil learn it, and the stupid or unworthy will keep away. Such aggression ghettoizes the community.

3 One thoughtful poster contrasted the need for political freedom with the prospect of censorship. By the terms of the argument, I believe it’s correct – but I don’t accept the binary choice s/he presents:

[The Internet has] ALWAYS been a war zone. . . . Anyone who thinks it used to be all nice and safe is either delusional or wasn’t paying attention. If you have a forum where governments can’t track down and kill political opponents, you have a forum where nice people can’t track down and hold liable nogoodniks who froth hate. That sucks for the nice people, but I think our need for widespread, anonymous communication outweighs their discomfort.

4 There are many issues I consider writing about. Only a few make it to the screen. It’s easy to think a thing; hard to put it into words I won’t regret. I doubt I’ll post much more about this topic, but I hope I in future that I will at least say something when it’s obvious something needs to be said.


Just Say No

David Simon, writer and producer of TV show The Wire, gave a powerful speech at Loyola College about institutional failure and social fragmentation in America’s cities. I highly recommend watching The End of the American Empire. Here’s an excerpt from the second segment (with 3:10 remaining):

What’s left for people is what? What are they supposed to say “yes” to? . . . Ultimately, what we’re looking at is somebody who’s been told, just say “no” to what is the only viable economic engine in your neighborhood. . . . The one thing that it solves is, again, the existential crisis . . . Every drug addict knows the moment he wakes up in the morning what his job is. What his essence is. He’s solved his existential crisis. . . . “Just say no.” Why – why should I say no? What should I say yes too? And we don’t have an answer for that last part.



Seven directors of the SFU student society were impeached on Wednesday in a chilly three-hour meeting of over a thousand students. These are my thoughts on the meeting itself and the reaction of those impeached.

The Special General Meeting

The meeting was brilliant organized and run; my hat is off to all involved. The area was fenced in on all sides. Students had to present a student card and check in to a computer system whenever they entered or left; this provided a constant count of quorum and guaranteed it never dropped below 500 once the meeting began1. Organizers with headsets patrolled to make sure everything went smoothly. The chair was excellent – flexible but efficient. Titus did an outstanding job looking up and quoting the constitution and rules of order.

Several students tried to hinder the process through points of order (e.g. challenging the chair on the basis of her union connections), motions to fillibuster (e.g. lifting all time limits on debate, proposing a roll-call vote). At first there were only two students doing this; I had expected more. I don’t think it would have made any difference.

I was somewhat disturbed that debate was cut off for the impeachments (Hunsdale’s excepted). I would have liked to hear what the accused directors had to say. However, I supported most motions to end debate. I was worried that we would lose quorum to exhaustion and the cold weather. The directors had several months to explain themselves; I could see that those in attendance had investigated the matter before hand. They, like myself, were ready to stop talking and do the thing. Those directors who did attend spoke for three minutes each, but didn’t say anything substantive.

I also was unsure about impeaching Erica Halpern. The charge against here was simply that she had not opposed the actions of the other accused directors, not that she had actively engaged in anything untoward. On the one hand, as another student said, inaction is action; on the other, I’m not sure I would have done better in her shoes. In her case, I abstained; I wonder if I should have voted No. I also felt pangs of sympathy for the isolation and confusion evident on the faces of some of those impeached. Ultimately, I realized impeachment is about their public performance as directors and the needs of the society. It does not necessarily reflect on whether or not they are decent human beings.

That said, Glyn Lewis’s impassioned speech about the “unfairness” missed the point entirely. Politicians don’t have recourse to “fairness” when it comes to representing their constituents. They don’t get to file grievances or ask their constituents to justify themselves. We are the only judges of fair; we don’t have to explain our reasons for voting for him, against him, or impeaching him. His cry of “unfair” means he thinks we owe him something. It only shows his lack of fitness for the job.

The Aftermath

Having reportedly already violated the SFSS constitution, and refused to acknowledge, let alone justify their actions, it was a small step for the G7 (as they have come to be called) to refuse to step aside. They are hanging on, on what they claim are legitimate procedural and legal grounds.

Now I said impeachment by itself does not necessarily reflect on the character of those impeached. It’s like being fired: it doesn’t make you a bad person. But ignoring the verdict of their constituents? That shows a moral vacuum.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the claims of the G7 are correct: impeached president Shawn Hunsdale is, indeed, an active student at SFU, and thus eligible for the job. None of actions of the board or its directors have been improper. The SGM was invalid because the meeting in which it was called was itself cancelled. Those who voted to impeach did so because of a disinformation campaign by their enemies.

But it did go ahead, over a thousand students attended (it achieved quorum for the first time in a decade), it was planned and executed flawlessly, and the outcome was unambiguous. Shawn Hunsdale had 6 votes in his favor, 724 against. There is no room for maneuver here. Even if he has done nothing wrong, even if his actions have been for the general benefit, even if he knows best – even then, he must step aside. He is not the SFSS, and neither is the board. We are. And it is clear he and they have lost our confidence. They have lost their moral authority; they have lost our consent. No technicality could change that.

But there is no technicality. I saw Wei Li, alone at the microphone. I saw Margo Dunnet in the same place. These people are in over their heads, I thought. They are in this place, surrounded by people who reject them without even knowing them, and they don’t know how they got here. I felt for these people, even as I voted to impeach. Now I think of their faces and think: they are so ordinary, and they are tyrants.

Walk away. It is not the harder thing to do. But it is the better thing to do.


1 Apparently the Computer Science grads wrote the software. Even though I studied CS elsewhere, it makes me proud, for it is in the best tradition of the craft. Programming is not just a technical field. We can create software without the sponsorship of a company; the software we write embeds our values.


SFU Impeachment Scandal

Seven members of the Simon Fraser Student Society Board of Directors, including president Shawn Hunsdale, are up for impeachment. They are:

  • Shawn Hunsdale, SFSS President
  • Margo Dunnet, SFSS External Relations Officer
  • Wei Li, SFSS Internal Relations Officer
  • Glyn Lewis, SFSS Member Services Officer
  • Vanessa Kelly, SFSS Treasurer
  • Marion Pollock, SFSS At-Large Rep
  • Erica Halpern, SFSS At-Large Rep

Over 20 student groups have passed motions of non-confidence in the Board of Directors. An opposition group, Students for a Democratic University, has formed. The grad caucus for my own program, Communication, is one of those who have passed a non-confidence motion. This is not a very political group: the meetings I have attended have revolved around giving students $65 to attend conferences, setting up the grad lounge, and planning the occasional party.

One of the most outspoken students in opposition to the board is Bhuvinder Vaid. I took a course with Bhuvinder this past spring. He easygoing and thoughtful (and lent me a book I have yet to return – don’t worry Beev, I’ll get it back to you). Bhuvinder isn’t the only concerned student; many of the emails I have received are from people I have gone to class with and respect.

The SFSS Board could be responsible for spending millions of student dollars on a health plan. They are linked1 to the National Student Health Network (NSHN), a health plan provider, through the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). They are on record supporting a new undergraduate health plan. The SFSS Board has fired a staff member, seized computers with health plan student records, refused to recognize a petition for impeachment, rescheduled the Annual General Meeting to the exact same date and time as Special General Meeting at which students will vote on impeachment, and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers. They have refused to explain.

Well, I don’t know the Board, but I do know I’ve never seen so many student groups, or so many students I respect, aligning on any issue in student politics (or even paying attention to it). I also know that the Internet has a memory. Right now, the scandal shows up on the first page of results in a Google search for four of these people’s names. Politics are changing. This could haunt them for a long time.

Update 2006-10-28: See my post-impeachment follow-up.

1 Shawn Hunsdale, according to his Web site, “is the Canadian Federation of Students’ representative to the British Columbia Health Coalition.”


Jane Jacobs

Most sentimental ideas imply, at bottom, a deep if unacknowledged disrespect.
—Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs died today aged 89 in Toronto. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of those that has influenced me the most. Her writing was filled with wisdom; the passage above is only the best I can find that I have written down.


Government Junk Mail

Statistics Canada sent me a letter today. I thought it must be some kind of survey. I opened it to discover junk mail on government letterhead:

Dear Business Professional,

You know it takes more than luck to come up with the right decisions. You must equip yourself and your staff with trustworthy information to guide your choices. Statistics Canadas’ Canadian Economic Observer (CEO), Canada’s monthly report card on the economy, delivers the essential information you need to take the guesswork out of making decisions. Economists, policy-makers and business executives of companies of all sizes have discovered that CEO is a key resource when it comes to support for their planning, forecasting, and modeling activities. Read on and find out what CEO can do for you. [emphasis in original]

The cost for CEO (“Not the usual hype”) is $243 per year; the online version is offered for 25% less.

Statistics Canada is a federal agency with the power to fine and/or imprison people who refuse to fill out their census forms. Funded by the government, it collects that data in the name of the citizens of the country. The information is online, but it is not freely available. Now Statscan is turning around and selling that information right back to us1.

Although it may seem sensible to charge the chief beneficiaries, this information is useful to others also. The high cost of access converts a government service that would mostly benefit businesses and turns it into a service that almost exclusively benefits businesses. It simultaneously turns a respected public service with an important role into a business operation issuing cheap junk mail.


1 Well, only to “business professionals” I expect. I am incorporated, which raises the question of how Statscan got my address. Is it my Economist subscription, or did they dig it out of their GST registration records? How can I trust a government that operates like this?


Justify Invading Canada

In John Ibbitson’s Globe column on Tuesday1, he provided what appears to be an argument in favor the invasion of Canada if we were to limit oil exports to the United States (emphasis mine):

Such favouritism would be impossible, unless the Canadian government were to formally withdraw from NAFTA, and then adopt and energy policy that favored petroleum exports to other nations while imposing restrictions on exports to the United States. At which point, U.S. officials would either complain to the World Trade Organization or simply invade. In either case, who would blame them?

Wow. Just wow.

The next day, the paper printed some letters disagreeing with the thrust of the article. There was no mention of Ibbitson’s extraordinary suggestion.


1 “Talking tough to U.S. is popular, until it costs you a job”, The Globe & Mail, 2005-10-11, A4.

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