Stephen Harper's challenge to Canadian identity

A government-commissioned poll last March showed overwhelming public disapproval of women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. But disapproval is one thing; the specter of bureaucrats compelling women to remove clothing quite another. Canadians still like to think of themselves as tolerant and welcoming. By picking on an unpopular religious minority—Muslims constitute just 3.2 percent of Canada’s population—the government provoked widespread outrage. The Globe and Mail called the government’s tack a “culture war fabricated to take voters’ minds off the real and complex issues in this election.” The Toronto Star accused Harper of “relentlessly fanning hostility toward Muslims.” Canadians dismayed by the bigotry flocked to the sarcastic hashtag #BarbaricCulturalPractices to denounce everything from wearing socks with sandals to Harper’s refusal to investigate the cases of 582 missing and murdered aboriginal women in the country…

As I wrote in The Atlantic last month, many Canadians are embarrassed by Harper’s policies, particularly his disregard for parliamentary norms and suppression of government information. His attack on Muslim women takes this dismay to a new level. When Harper accuses niqabists of “hiding their identity,” he is wrong on two counts. As he well knows, they are required to unveil in private to a female citizenship officer prior to the public ceremony. But in a larger sense, they are not hiding but flaunting their identity—obdurately insisting their adopted country live up to its promise of welcoming those who are neither “old-stock” Anglos nor pure laine Québécois.

That a prime minister thought he might salvage his flagging reelection fortunes by promoting fear of such determined women will play on Canada’s conscience long after the votes have been counted.