Author Joseph Boyden takes on Stephen Harper

The Giller Prize winner accuses the PM of ‘race-baiting’ and ignoring issues like murdered and missing Indigenous women

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to the media during a campaign stop Montreal Que., on Saturday, October 3, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to the media during a campaign stop Montreal Que., on Saturday, October 3, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Giller prize-winning author Joseph Boyden said Stephen Harper’s comments on niqab issues are “race-baiting” and he compared Harper’s policies to Nazi Germany. Speaking to Evan Solomon on SiriusXM’s radio program Everything is Political, Boyden called the Tory efforts to ban the niqab “fear-mongering to the lowest common denominator.”

Boyden is a Canadian novelist living in New Orleans, best known for his books Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, which won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and The Orenda, which was named the winner of the 2014 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads.

Boyden went even further when asked about the Conservatives’ promise to create a tip line to report “barbaric cultural practices.” “Are we in 1939 Germany?” Boyden asked “This is no longer even dog-whistle [politics], this is through a gramophone, that’s through a megaphone,” he said.

The Conservatives passed legislation in June called Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Acts that include forced child marriage, genital mutilation or polygamy. “Barbaric is an emotive term, it is not a legal descriptor,” Boyden told Solomon, suggesting it could apply to many acceptable religious and cultural practices, including circumcision. (Though circumcision is not included in the legislation.)

Andrew Tolson

Andrew Tolson

Boyden argued that the niqab issue is being used as a distraction from other issues facing the country. “The real issue is the economy, which is wobbly right now,” Boyden said. “The real issue is the environment, which is screwed. The real issue is First Nations issues. The fastest growing population in our country are second-class citizens, and yet we’re talking about niqabs.”

If people want to see real barbaric cultural practices, he added, they need look no further than the rising number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

In 2014, the RCMP released a report that said there were close to 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women since 1980—Boyden argues that number could be much closer to 1,800. “That’s a national crime,” Boyden said. “It’s a national shame. It’s a national stain.”

Bob Zimmer, Conservative incumbent running in Prince George–Peace River–Northern Rockie, said at a debate on Tuesday, “one of the major drivers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is lack of economic activity or, simply put, a lack of a job.”

“If you believe that Canada is a post-racial society, I guarantee you you’re not First Nations, you’re not probably any of the minorities that live in Canada,” Boyden said. “You are probably a white male.”

The niqab debate has taken over this campaign—the Conservatives want to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies and will consider a ban on face coverings in the federal public service.

Boyden’s views have been echoed by several high-profile Muslim leaders. Imam Syed Soharwardy, head of the Calgary-based Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, told Solomon that he believes Muslims are being targeted in this election by the Conservative party. “It’s quite Islamophobic; it’s quite hate-mongering,” Soharwardy said of the niqab debate. “It’s an excuse to incite hate towards Muslims.”

Speaking on behalf of the Federation of Muslim Women, Rabia Khedr agreed that Muslims are being targeted, and she told Solomon that she’s also disappointed in Harper’s leadership on the niqab. “Canada is my home and I don’t appreciate my head of state making me feel unwanted in this country,” Khedr said.

Columnist and activist Tarek Fatah, however, said the niqab issue is a merely a security issue and is not anti-Muslim. “Banks have been robbed in Toronto by men wearing niqabs,” Fatah told Solomon on Everything is Political. He said the niqab has nothing to do with scriptural Islam, but, he argues, comes from cultural practices in Saudi Arabia.

Harper says his party will examine the Quebec government’s bill introduced late last spring that would ban public sector workers from wearing niqabs. “Let me be very clear, we’ve actually been saying the same thing for several months,” said Harper on Wednesday, while campaigning in Saskatoon.

“The Quebec government, the Liberal government in Quebec, has brought forward legislation to require that people reveal their identity when delivering or receiving frontline service. They have tabled a bill before the Quebec Assembly, we’ve said we will look at that bill before taking further steps,” Harper said.

“The Quebec government has been handling this controversy in a very responsible manner and we will do exactly the same things,” he said.


Author Joseph Boyden takes on Stephen Harper

  1. I thought Justin Trudeau said he was for “fact-based” policy.

    The niqab has nothing to do with Islam. That is a fact. It is an oppressive practice of the most anti-woman culture on the planet.

    Equality is a charter right, and women are a protected group under the equality provisions. The free expression provisions of the charter must be balanced against the equality provisions.

    Substantive equality, as progressives have been telling us for the last 50 years, sometimes requires disparate treatment.

    • I’m afraid the niqab isn’t anything to do with misogyny either.

      Women aren’t a ‘protected group’…..they’re equal

      WHAT free expression?

    • I await the full list of patriarchal wardrobe items the Stylist State will be banning to protect women from themselves.
      Obviously the sheitel, the habit, crucifixes…
      And, of course, oath-takers will have to be checked by trained experts for any unlisted misogynistic accessories they may be sporting.
      Maybe it would be easier issue everyone an orange jumpsuit?

      • The Pope was travelling around America recently wearing a dress. What was that about?
        If he tries to come to Canada in that garb which could be concealing just about anything, turn him away.

  2. Whether or not the niqab is part of Islam per se is of NO importance; various people in various parts of the world live their Muslim religion differently, often according to local custom rather than anything directly out of the Koran. That is their right and it is no-one else’s business which form they have chosen for themselves.
    But this is the same for other religions too. Plenty of Catholics use contraception, but someone (similar to a poster here) could complain “That’s not really part of the religion!”
    The point is, that there are some Muslims who feel that they should wear a headscarf because of the Koranic injunction to be “modest”. Other Muslims feel they should wear a burka or a niqab. It is a personal choice within variations of how to live one’s religion.
    But the CHOICE of what to wear should be a PERSONAL one … not one made either by the State or by every passing Feminist or bigot telling them what they CANNOT wear. True, some women wear the niqab because their husband insists on it; that is a private affair between them. But many women wear the niqab because they have freely chosen to, which is why the Supreme Court has agreed that telling a woman she cannot wear the niqab goes against the Charter.
    To paraphrase Voltaire: “I detest the niqab, but will defend to the death a woman’s right to wear it.” Why? Because as much as I dislike the niqab, (and many other customs from many religions – I detest fascism even more.

  3. Never in my memory has a prime minister conducted a campaign so soaked in fear, anger, and hate.
    I’m talking watching politics since Diefenbaker, Pearson, Douglas, and Trudeau, Stanfield, Broadbent, and Clark, Mulroney, Turner.
    Not one of these people or any since, or any Provincial leaders in Ontario I have watched, would have tried to turn the population against an identifiable minority like this. It’s Second World War prejudices all over again.

    • The Liberal government os Quebec passed a law with all party support banning the niqab in the government workplace.

      Former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff thought the banning of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies was an acceptable policy.

      Dalton McGuinty and his Ontario Liberals ran an election against funding other religious schools other than Catholic ones, implicit in that was Islamophobia.

      • Just once I wish you could get the correct topic instead of all this blatherskyte you think up.

  4. Just because a large majority of people agree with the position doesn’t make it right.

    If that were the case, you’d think that internment of Japanese Canadians was the right thing to do; it was not.

    • Residential Schools and Japanese internment camps, and turning away ships carrying European Jews seem to represent the last time we had race based leadership at the top. We sure have it now.

    • The equality of women, a charter right, means the government must create an environment where all women feel equal and unthreatened. The state allowing symbols of oppressive misogyny such as the niqab at official ceremonies, like the citizenship ceremony, arguably fails the test of the state making sure the environment is non-hostile to women.

  5. Ahh Macleans, the seat of the Liberals and Socialists.

    You forget that the overwhelming majority of Canadians support the niqab, while every single Canadian regardless of race has equal access to every thing he wants in this country. It’s just called hard work, like with everything.

    And so Boyden is against a tip line for things like child marriage, polygamy, and genital mutilation. Does that mean he thinks these practices are acceptable?

    • How about the things that ‘old stock’ does….in abusing their children, or keeping them in ignorance, or forcing them into early marriage……or circumcision and communal living, and the cold-water baby treatment and polygamy….etc

      Is that barbaric enough for you?

      Why are we always blaming other people for things we do ourselves?

  6. Or maybe Boyden swallows a lot of penis. I think that’s a more likely scenario, and the real reason he dislikes Harper.

    • There is nothing like Con class eh folks?

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