The Niqab: The Unexpected Determinant in Canada’s Federal Election

On October 19th, Canada found itself at a familiar political junction. Millions of citizens descended upon the polls to vote in the federal elections, collectively deciding which party would form a government in the House of Commons and who would lead the government as Prime Minister. The governing Conservative Party, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, faced off against the leftist opposition’s New Democratic Party (NDP), under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, and against the center-left Liberal Party, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. Despite finishing third in 2011, the Liberal Party went on to win 184 of the 338 seats, leapfrogging the 99 and 44 seats won by the Conservatives and NDP, respectively. With a comfortable majority in place, the dashing Trudeau became prime minister. For the NDP, the outcome sharply contrasted with the optimistic rhetoric of Mulcair and with the overwhelming support that the party had received in the 2011 election. Furthermore, the polls indicated that up until the end of September, the three parties were all relatively neck and neck, making the NDP’s defeat all that much more biting. It was during this time that amid a plethora of complex political platforms, the national debate on whether women should be allowed to wear the niqab, the traditional Muslim cloth that covers everything but the eyes of the wearer, began to escalate. This debate not only imposed political ramifications on the NDP but also symbolized the consequences of an increasingly difficult discussion about Canadian national identity.

With the Liberals in government and the Conservatives supplanting the NDP as the official opposition, the election results solidified the anticipated consequence of what the Canadian press now colloquially refers to as the “niqab issue.” The series of debates on the niqab that dominated the national election coverage stemmed from a federal appeals court ruling that found a ban that prevented a Muslim woman from wearing her niqab during the Canadian citizenship ceremony unlawful. The heads of the three dominant parties have repeatedly discussed this case, attempting to tackle both legal policy regarding the covering of the face and its relation to religious freedom. Prime Minister Harper voiced a series of opinions on the court rulings during the campaign trail, demonstrating his opposition to the decision whenever he felt that it would “strike a chord” with the Canadian people. While the direct impact of Harper’s platform was not immediately clear, there has been an evident correlation between Mulcair’s outspoken agreement with the court’s decision and the diminishing of his own support. In fact, as Mulcair increasingly voiced his position on the niqab and faced opposition from the general public’s opinions, his identity as Canada’s uniting political figure began to dissipate.

The national Leaders’ French Language Debate drastically catalyzed this issue. As Harper, Mulcair, and Trudeau erupted into intense debate on the rights and potential dangers of the niqab’s presence in citizenship ceremonies, the issue transformed from one that merely divided the liberal and conservative camps into a question of legitimate policy. Throughout the course of the night, Harper incorporated his support of the ban into the foundation of his political platform, only to be rebuffed by Trudeau’s open advocacy of free-ranging civil liberties. The Liberal Party, despite its specific position on the niqab, also took advantage of the debate to voice political platforms that did appeal to popular sentiment. Mulcair, on the other hand, remained either non-vocal or relatively ambiguous about the topic of the niqab, likely because of his recognition of Quebec, the setting of the debate, as “ground zero for explosive debates in recent years over the accommodation of religious minorities.” A cultural and political epicenter, the city has been home to increased dialogue on the evolving social identity of the nation.

"While the future of the niqab’s image and function within society remains to be seen, what is fundamentally apparent is that the demographic presence of an identity no longer directly indicates its political and cultural significance."

Furthermore, as the niqab discussion dominated the debate, an unmistakable linguistic connection between France, which has banned all forms of face covering in public since 2010, and Canada fostered a distinct ideological linkage between the two nations. It was in these moments that the niqab seemed to be an issue that affected every citizen in a prominent and daily fashion. Yet, the demographic reality of Canada continues to reject this notion. As the debate over the niqab has escalated, the chasm between the ideological importance of the issue and its relatively small demographic impact has also become clear. The contradiction between the two circumstances reflects an aspect of Canadian society that is just beginning to publicly develop. Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey recorded 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada, which makes up almost 3% of the total population. At first glance, this clear minority does not match up with the political focus of the niqab discussion, but the numbers alone do not adequately express the religious group’s significance. Because Muslims represent the most prominent minority religious group in Canada, their role in society can be perceived as the symbol of all identities that differ from the ethnic and religious majority of the nation. In addition, the recent increase in immigration to Canada, a phenomenon mirrored in many parts of the world, and the globalized debate on the niqab and other religious cloths, have begun to craft a distinct identity challenge within Canada’s borders. As the demographics of the nation have begun to change, the leaders have recognized the practical significance of the ideological discussion.

The politicization of this identity shift, made visible through the role of the media, the timing of the elections, and the diversity of the positions of the candidates, placed the niqab in its topical center. The fact that this debate has been occurring in legal, political, and social forums reveals the multifaceted nature of the topic and its holistic role in national identity. And while the exact future of the niqab’s image and function within society remains to be seen, what is fundamentally apparent is that the demographic presence of an identity no longer directly indicates its political and cultural significance. With our increasingly globalized world, political leaders and voters alike are faced with more issues of identity than ever in the past. The importance of these issues is no longer dictated by numbers but rather by ties between people and countries.

The Liberal Party’s victory indicates that the era of Conservative government in Canada is over. A large part of its success has been attributed to campaigning on socially progressive policies while remaining fiscally centrist. However, the NDP’s fallout over the niqab debate suggests a fundamental contradiction: If Canada is holistically shifting to the left, putting the Liberal party into power again, why does popular opinion rest on the conservative side of this argument? At first glance this question may simply suggest an anomaly in policy opinion among the Canadian population. Upon further reflection, the discussed political and cultural significance of the issue confirms that the niqab debate was not only a factor in the election but rather a symbol of a contradictory reality within Canada. Trudeau and his party won the majority through liberal platforms that reflected the desires of the public. However, while the election results indicate that Canada is eager to initiate these reforms, the public stops short of an overarching reclassification of Canadian identity. The election results and public polls on the niqab debate do not symbolize a contradiction in policy but rather they symbolize the extent to which Canadians are seeking to alter the direction of the nation.

Right or wrong, and for whatever reasons cited, the popular opinion that the niqab should not be worn during citizenship ceremonies embodies the efforts of the public to define Canada’s identity amid political and social transformations. The many voters who cast their ballots for the Liberal Party while supporting the banning of the niqab represent two separate realities: an increasingly leftist economic and political platform and stagnant cultural development. Because Trudeau and his party now make up the government, action may be taken regarding the niqab ruling. But regardless of the results, the significance of the debate continues to highlight an important identity challenge. As the country steers away from Conservative policies that have long dominated the country, the government will be forced to decide how policy and identity interact, while citizens grapple with a broader question of what it means to be Canadian.

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About the Author

Anna Murphy '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.

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