Justin Trudeau and a Liberal take on personal liberty

Justin Trudeau and a Liberal take on liberty

Paul Wells on Trudeau’s speech, Bill C-51 and a nation’s capital, gripped with fear

Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Listen to Paul Wells read his column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

Here in the nation’s capital, the Rideau Canal has finally thawed and everybody’s odious.

“Where is the fear?” Steven Blaney, the generally amiable minister of public safety, said to a committee studying the government’s proposed anti-terrorism law, Bill C-51. “The fear is on the side of those who are attacking this bill.” And then he said that C-51 seeks to criminalize pro-terrorist speech because “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words.”

So. The government’s opponents are fear-mongering, to hear the minister tell it, and they’re also increasing the likelihood of some new Holocaust. As long as you don’t see any connection between the Holocaust and fear, the minister was being perfectly consistent.

Blaney spoke a day after Justin Trudeau delivered a humdinger of a speech in Toronto. It was certainly Trudeau’s most important speech since he became Liberal leader, and probably the first time he has substantially helped his cause since last summer. Not that his arguments will be universally popular. Certainly, members of the Harper government didn’t like what he said one bit.

The Liberal’s general theme was personal liberty. To him, this includes the right to wear what one wishes in public, including a niqab—a veil some Muslim women use to cover their faces—and during a citizenship ceremony, at that. In February, Stephen Harper told a Quebec City radio host that his government will appeal an “offensive” Federal Court decision permitting Zunera Ishaq, a Toronto woman, to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony. Covering one’s face is “not how we do things here,” the PM said then.

Trudeau’s reply, in his Toronto speech: “We should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a ‘none is too many’ immigration policy toward Jews in the ’30s and ’40s, being used to raise fears against Muslims today.”

That led Jason Kenney, the author of the niqab ban when he was immigration minister, to spend the next day on Twitter hurling opprobrium in Trudeau’s direction. “It is obscene to conflate the essentially public nature of the citizenship oath with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust,” Kenney wrote.


Interview: Jason Kenney responds to Justin Trudeau’s speech

Aaron Wherry: Justin Trudeau and the niqab

He has a point; several, as always. Mackenzie King’s Liberal government was way better at keeping Jews out of Canada (5,000 for the entire duration of the Second World War, when it was really important to accept Jews) than the Conservatives have been at keeping Muslims out (Canada’s had 300,000 Muslim immigrants since 2006). There are Muslims in the Conservative caucus, whose legislative record is not inferior to the Liberals’ on issues of respect for ethnic diversity.

It was not a great week to make the point. Kenney’s colleague John Williamson had just finished apologizing for calling temporary foreign workers “brown people” who work while “whities” are paid to stay home.

Trudeau hadn’t the faintest interest in carefully assaying the merits of various parties on inclusiveness. He was engaging cheerfully in polemic, a taste in which Harper Conservatives have been known to indulge themselves from time to time. “It’s time Liberals took back liberty,” he said. “These Conservatives pretend to talk a good game about freedom, but look at what they’ve done with it.”

In seven years in Parliament, Trudeau said, he has “heard the Conservative Prime Minister accuse two leaders of the NDP of sympathizing with terrorists” and heard Vic Toews, Blaney’s predecessor at Public Safety, tell opponents they were either “with us, or you’re with the child pornographers.”

Trudeau defined liberty broadly enough to include women’s right to access abortions, which he rated “more important than the right of a legislator to restrict her freedom with [his or her] vote. MPs who disagree with that have other choices. They can sit as Independents, or as Conservatives.”

But he kept circling back to the niqab at a citizenship ceremony: “For me, it is basic truth that prime ministers of liberal democracies ought not to be in the business of telling women what they can and cannot wear on their head during public ceremonies.”

Trudeau was threading a slender needle here. Before linking Harper to King’s wartime anti-Semitism, he talked at length about Rania El-Alloul, who was kicked out of a Quebec court for wearing a hijab, a headscarf that didn’t cover her face. But as Trudeau certainly knows, Harper’s office has defended Alloul’s right to wear a hijab. So to call her story “part of a troubling trend that Mr. Harper seems keen to . . . exploit” isn’t really cricket.

Trudeau was in Toronto to pick a fight. By siding with a court, and the Charter, over what Harper and many Conservative voters prefer in the niqab case, he was reminding traditional Liberal voters what the Liberal side of an argument sounds like. It had been a while. The last three Liberal leaders kept forgetting to do that. Harper gave a speech in 2003 to a conservative social club, Civitas, that reads a decade later as a manifesto for everything he does. This was Trudeau’s rebuttal. Neither man’s vision is acceptable to every Canadian. Each man’s first goal is to reassure and motivate his own base. One condition of success in politics is the ability to wave a serene goodbye to everybody who will never vote for you.


Justin Trudeau and a Liberal take on liberty

  1. I really didn’t hear Trudeau explain anything about a “Liberal” take on liberty, aside from suggesting that Muslims should be allowed to wear whatever they want, wherever they want.

    Liberty means lots of things to lots of people, but I don’t see a lot of liberty in Liberal policies. They’re all about bigger government, higher taxes… more government intervention in our daily lives, not less. That’s the antithesis of liberty.

    • Everybody knows that lower taxes and government secrecy are the real fount of liberty

      • And spying on the citizenry, using secret warrants, and having judges override the Charter so you can get away with it all, of course. True liberty is being allowed to persecute anyone you disagree with, without all that pesky oversight.

        • None of that matters, so long as you’re free to shop and free to behave like a normal, traditional Canadian.

  2. “The fear is on the side of those who are attacking this bill.”

    Damn straight! Anyone with half a grain of sense ought to fear the powers C-44 and C-51 will grant. As the government gets more and more secretive, citizens’ privacy rights go up in smoke.

    And the CPC might want to give some thought about how these wonderful powers of surveillance and persecuting those on Harper’s “enemies list” might be turned against them when they eventually end up on the opposition benches…

  3. This speech was a way of telling Canadians, the Liberal party respects The Charter of Rights. The Charter of Rights is like the Declaration of Independence in the US to the liberal party and a majority of Canadians, and the liberals are the only ones who will protect our charter. Harper spent more money in courts fighting the charter that could pay for the transfer payments to 2 of the smallest provinces in the country and made more lawyers rich than they spent on EAP ads. The NDP want to take the charter apart, even though sometimes they like to talk from both sides of their mouths, use the charter when it suites their cause, but jump all over when it doesn’t. There are two institutions the NDP want to rip apart ASAP, the Senate because they are on the outside looking in, and the BOIC, but the BOIC doesn’t work for them right either because they(NDP) were caught funneling money to satellite offices throughout the country. Yes Justin Trudeau and the liberals will always defend the charter, if they didn’t, we would look exactly like the US right now, elected judges, elected prosecutors,and everyone elected with all judgements and decisions made by polling numbers and political pressure. We are getting closer to the US style politics the longer the cons are in power. This speech by Trudeau sounded to me like the continuation to the ‘Just Society ‘ of his fathers legacy and trying to protect it.

  4. Very fair to Trudeau Paul. Great.
    Ironic from conservative point of view. The idea that the government has no right to tell anybody what to wear could be spoken by Rand Paul, BillMaher, as well as “the state has no business etc” Pierre Trudeau. Forgot William F. Buckley. Running out Libertarians!

    • Just watching CBC news and the unbelievable has happened; Harper has lost Rex Murphy on the face cover issue.

  5. This week probably reminded Peter McKay why Progressive Conservatives were in no way happy with the merger with the Reform Party turned into the Canadian Alliance and that at some point in time the ghosts of the Reform-Alliance were going to come back to haunt him and his decision…which is why the next days,weeks and months could be more interesting in that does McKay stay around hoping Harper falters and a leadership race is on and maybe McKay can win and sweep the vestiges of the Reform-Alliance out of the party,go before the ship truly sinks or does he pull either a Baird…or more interesting a Adams ???

  6. It would be fine if the Liberal Party actually supported the rights of Canadians to wear whatever they want. They don’t.

    The proof, Bill C-309, the “Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act.” On June 19, 2013 the Liberals voted unanimously WITH the Conservatives to threaten Canadians who cover their faces in public under certain circumstances with up to 10 YEARS IN PRISON. I suppose if you claim you are wearing a religious garment, you get an exception; but those who claim no such exception are breaking the law.

    Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Garneau both went on ad-nauseum about how they would defend every Canadian’s right to wear what they want, yet their voting record shows different.

    I am a left of centre voter that would most easily fit in with the Liberal family, but I cannot vote for them because of wishy-washy stances like this. My choice is with the Greens or the NDP.